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Throughout her playing career, Amelie Mauresmo found it hard to smile. The pressure and expectations were too great.
But as the 124th Wimbledon championships began on a gloriously sunny day Monday, there the elegant Frenchwoman was, grinning from ear to ear, completely relaxed.
Mauresmo, the popular 2006 champion who retired last year, was back at the All England Club, this time as a coach to eccentric serve-and-volleyer Michael Llodra.
"I have a lot of memories here, but it's a very different spirit when you come back as a noncompetitor," Mauresmo said as she leaned on a railing overlooking one of the buzzing, and sheltered, practice courts. "I'm enjoying it. I still feel the joy of coming into a historical place of tennis and the most prestigious place, especially on days like this."
Mauresmo described herself as a "lazy woman" the past six months, taking in life away from the pro circuit. She's had the chance to drink more wine -- Mauresmo boasts an impressive wine cellar -- and spend time with family and friends. Having no schedule suited her fine.
Plus, her body was able to recover.
"Physically waking up and not feeling hurt in any way is something I appreciate a lot," she said. "The pressure and tension, which you have at the top level, it's something that's off. It's unbelievable."
Mauresmo the coach is off to a good start. First teaming up with Llodra at the AEGON Championships in London two weeks ago, the lefty upset Marin Cilic en route to a quarterfinal finish. Last week in Eastbourne, England, Llodra bagged his fifth career title as his resurrection in singles continued.
Llodra, a winner against American Jesse Witten in the first round, approached Mauresmo about 1½ months ago.
"I did not really think about [coaching] at all," Mauresmo said. "It wasn't in my plans. I was happy and surprised when he asked. I said, 'Yeah, let's try it.'"
Some players don't take practice overly seriously. They smile from time to time, chat with the opposition and take their sweet time going from point to point.Rafael Nadal is all intensity. The world No. 1 marched to the practice courts, a posse of excited fans in his trail, and quickly got to work against fellow Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Llodra's victim in the Eastbourne finale.
At one stage during the extra long session -- Rafa got more than the customary hour -- Garcia-Lopez skied a ball that, had it been Center Court on a rainy day, might have touched the roof. Onlookers at the practice venue laughed, then gasped as Nadal crushed an overhead. No expression on Rafa's face.
On the court behind Nadal, women's No. 1 Serena Williams put in a similarly extended session.
Cilic was progressing nicely, having reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal in New York last year and backing it up with a semifinal showing at the Australian Open in January. The 21-year-old began 2010 with a glittering 18-2 record, defending his titles in Chennai and Zagreb. Since the Davis Cup in March, however, Cilic has gone a mediocre 12-9.
Going from clay to grass should have suited the behemoth Croatian. Instead, Cilic lost in the third round at Queen's and exited in the first round at SW19 -- in straight sets -- to unorthodox German Florian Mayer.
Bob Brett, Cilic's venerable coach, blamed the dip on youth.
Note, too, that all four Australian Open semifinalists have struggled since Oz.
"Especially with young players, that part of the year, you can start really well," Brett said before Cilic's loss. "There's a lot more mix in tournaments after that. And so it's not as easy to sort of keep that momentum."
Croatian tennis needs a boost. Ivo Karlovic and Mario Ancic are injured, while Ivan Ljubicic joined Cilic as a first-round loser Monday.
Most players at Wimbledon have an eye on the World Cup, including Italian baseliner Andreas Seppi.
Joyous when Francesca Schiavone won the French Open earlier this month to become Italy's first female Grand Slam singles winner, Seppi was utterly disappointed following the Azzurri's humiliating 1-1 draw with minnow New Zealand in South Africa on Sunday.
If Italy fails to beat Slovakia in its final group game Thursday, it could be lights out in the first round for the defending champion.
Imagine the scene at the airport when the squad returns home.
"It was a tough result for us against New Zealand," the mild-mannered Seppi said. "Everyone was expecting us to win. We always start slow, then get better and better. But I think for sure this year the team isn't as strong as in 2006, so that's the difference."
Back to tennis. In the wake of Schiavone's triumph, Seppi said it's time for the Italian men to start producing. None are in the top 50.
Seppi has seen his ranking dip to 69th -- from a high of 27th in 2008 -- thanks to a 10-16 record this season.