Marion Bartoli’s Final Flourish

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDON

There is nothing more perpetually frightening in women’s tennis than the sight an opponent, finally free from all the crippling shackles of nerves bred by pressure, bombastically swinging back from out of a seemingly impossible hole. On the 6th year anniversary of her rise to elite prominence after downing Justine Henin in the semifinals of the same event, Marion Bartoli found herself in this very position as she closed in on her childhood dream. In fact, her 6-1 5-1 lead in a Wimbledon final was probably far beyond the imagination of any tennis player. It felt too perfect – too easy. As she scaled to within points of those hopes transforming into life-altering reality, the feeling of an uneasy balance lingered in the air – while she had executed an extremely bold and intelligent match to position herself within the touching distance of glory, her opponent Sabine Lisicki, who had promised so much, had been far too poor. Even most past finals where players, usually of the Russian variety, have collapsed under pressure and into the ground haven’t yielded such one-sided results. Not even when facing Serena Williams. Surely a rebuttal would come?

It did come. Standing one point from pure agony, the German wiped the tears from her eyes and contorted her features into that familiar steely and determined look worn uniformly by all WTA players as they enter the fray and fight for their lives. Three match points came and went – the first set of two saved by a dismissive backhand putaway followed by a typically monstrous first serve from the German. Complacently surfaced as Lisicki appeared to momentarily assume she was briefly out of the woods, and a rash error from the German offered Bartoli a third shot at a painless victory. But the mental damage had been done. The third was squandered with a frail backhand into the net and it was clear that the woman who had refused to allow the occasion to hold anything but a nervy first game over her, was finally breaking.

In a flash of two more explosive serves, the game was saved and Bartoli was left with a 90-second changeover to pitifully dissect how she had managed to lose her way on the simplest path to glory. The roles the pair had seemingly permanently assumed after the first game were suddenly reversed; thunderous Lisicki winners streaked across the court while nervy errors seeped from the comically oversized racquet face of Bartoli. Two further games were secured by Lisicki, and Bartoli found herself that awkward position of serving for a match for a second time after failing at the first attempt. The good news? There was still one service game to go, one more shot at a somewhat stress-free victory, one more chance to kill it off for good. But the momentum had swung so far from her that the match was on the verge of transforming beyond salvation. The simultaneous greatness and tragedy of women’s tennis is in these these brief lapses that almost always transform into dramatic momentum swings that change the face of matches and often end only with one outcome – tears. When players blink, they don’t merely lose a point or even a game, it’s usually the small, honest beginnings of a dramatic landslide. And so although Bartoli was no further from this heavenly victory she envisioned since she was a child than when she first received for the match while up 5-1, the depths of hell had opened up underneath her, ready to swallow her should she have hesitated just one more time.

But this is Marion Bartoli. Even before she could call herself a Grand Slam champion, even before she even found herself back once again in a Wimbledon final, there was no doubt that she had maximized her abilities; taking all opportunities presented to her with, quite literally, both hands. Of all tennis players on the planet, surely Marion Bartoli would not let this opportunity slide. As she began her serve, Lisicki’s forehand assault continued, eventually forcing the Frenchwoman to throw one arm desperately into the air. The ball floated over in the air for what felt like an eternity. Lisicki could have finished it – she should have finished it – but it was Lisicki’s time to hesitate, and that was all the assurance Bartoli needed. The Frenchwoman immediately neutralized the point. Before long, the champion-in-waiting uncorked a ballistic angle worthy of even her idol, Monica Seles, frantically throwing both hands far above her head as she desperately steered the ball to bounce less than half-way up the court at speed. The point, and probably with it the match, was won.

A service winner took the game to 30-0, which Bartoli reacted to not with her usual vigorous fistpumping. This time, she slowly walked towards the back wall and touched it with her racquet; as if to absorb the famously calm and serene characteristics of Centre Court as she approached the two most important points of her career. Whatever the reason, it worked. After yet another strong delivery, a bold cross-court forehand was enough to cripple Lisicki and a second wrong-footing cross-court hammer blow sealed three further shots at greatness. Three points to write her strange, quirky and single-minded self indelibly into the history books. Only Marion Bartoli knows how many thoughts were flashing through her mind as she collected the ball that would hopefully seal the deal, and then calmly walked to her baseline. She stepped up. She served an ace. She completed a glorious, perfect final game. She won Wimbledon.

That’s Marion Bartoli. That is what she does. We can talk for eternity about her route to the final which, indeed, could probably compare with some of the weaker runs to a Birmingham title. Standing in the way of a Grand Slam title for Bartoli in its three latter stages was the illustrious threesome of Sloane Stephens in all her lethargic glory, Kirsten Flipkens, whose top 20 ranking was already the source of much head-shaking before she transcended her journeywoman reputation to pitch her tent in the final four of a Grand Slam. And then there is Sabine Lisicki. But that is all irrelevant. The relevance is in how Bartoli, who arrived at Wimbledon in some of her worst form of these six years, sniffed out the sweet smell of opportunity as the favourites around her collapsed under it, and rose to the occasion fabulously. She didn’t bullshit her way to the title with three horrifically, hideous three-setters so disgusting that they forced all onlookers off sick from work the following day. Instead, she crushed her final two opponents and snatched the nicest-looking trophy in sport with an incredible, gutsy final flourish.

Comparisons have been drawn to Francesca Schiavone, who similarly gloriously ambushed her 2010 French Open final opponent, Sam Stosur; who had triumphed over Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic in succession to reach the final, but even that is quite different. Throughout the years, Bartoli has shown, albeit inconsistently, that she is one of the most prominent grasscourters on the tour. In addition to that famous Henin upset six years to the day before this new triumph, she won at Eastbourne with three straight top ten wins over Azarenka, Stosur and Wimbledon champion to-be, Kvitova. Plus, she has taken out Jankovic on the lawns of Wimbledon – not that this means too much – and smacked down Serena Williams as she returned from injury in 2011.

Bartoli also reminded us that, irrespective of the phantom IQ figure that is sarcastically interjected at every possible moment, she is genuinely one of the smarter players on tour. The Frenchwoman is not remotely athletic, nor is she in possession of much natural power, but as evidenced by she and her father’s manic obsession with improving them through her famous training techniques, her greatest strengths of all are her reflexes. Those reflexes allow her to push so far up to the baseline against even the most powerful players and servers, taking the ball inhumanly early and brutally robbing her opponents of often the most valuable asset in women’s tennis – time. Unlike most aggressive, early ballstrikers who attempt to finish points as quickly as possible, her aim isn’t to blast opponents off the court. Rather, she uses this troublesome triad of depth, weight and early ballstriking to obliterate her opponents’ weaknesses and mercilessly force them backwards. For Stephens, Flipkens and Lisicki, this meant that all three sub-standard backhands were heinously humiliated.

For Bartoli, this meant that she won Wimbledon.