French Open Serves up Intense Pressure on Tennis Pros

In professional tennis, the psychological pressure on players is mind-boggling, whether you are facing the full glare of the public spotlight or toiling in relative obscurity.

Ask Amelie Mauresmo, a 26-year-old Frenchwoman whose country is begging her to win the 2006 French Open crown and bring home the women's title for the first time in 39 years.

Ask Meghann Shaughnessy, a 27-year-old American pro from Scottsdale, Ariz., who must conquer similar pressures of expectation every time she steps on the court.

As this year's championships began, Mauresmo's image was everywhere in Paris, pasted onto traffic signs and bus stops, woven into a Web site, and printed onto large posters adorning the grounds of Roland Garros, the Parisian tennis complex where the French Open takes place.

Two Sides of Coin

Shaughnessy and Mauresmo are two sides of the same pressure coin. Shaughnessy lost the final of the 1996 French Open junior championships to Mauresmo. Ten years later, she found herself cast as a possible spoiler in the psychodrama developing over Mauresmo's quest for the title.

Even though Shaughnessy has made more than $3 million in prize money since turning pro in 1996, the pressure translates into real fear for her.

"Everybody deals with it differently," she said to ABC News. "I get very nervous before a match. I want to do well. If I feel the pressure, I get a little bit defensive."

During her match, the American braved rhythmic clapping from a mildly partisan French crowd. Then she lost to her French opponent. "I think the pressure just added to the excitement of the match," she said with the unconvincing tone of a graceful loser.

Across the net, Mauresmo suffered her own form of nerves. Not so many years ago, the French sporting press began tagging her as a nerve-wracked competitor who might not have the mental strength to achieve her potential. With career earnings of nearly $11 million, Mauresmo is not facing financial pressure.

In January, she won the Australian Open, the first of the four major crowns in tennis. This helped ease the public pressure on her but did not erase it. She won in Melbourne, only after her opponent defaulted to her in the final round, saying injuries made it impossible for her to continue.

Now there are new pressures on Mauresmo -- from the athlete herself.

"I have expectations," she told reporters here the other day. "There's not only the pressure of the public or of the media, there's also my expectations. I want to do well during this tournament."

The reason seems related to the images.

As they approach Roland Garros, tennis fans confront a battlefield of images of players on buildings, running, laughing, jumping and cavorting for attention. Each displays the logo of a sporting goods manufacturer or a corporate sponsor.

No player is more visible than Mauresmo. None is more invisible than Shaughnessy.