Grass-Court Report: Staying and Departing
EASTBOURNE, England—Despite wind, rain, and big-hitting left-handed opponents, Marion Bartoli and Angelique Kerber progress into the semifinals on Thursday in Eastbourne.
I’ve been saving writing about the quirky Bartoli all week, deferring it like a treat you know will be gone all too quickly once you finally give in to temptation and consume it, but in the end there’s not too much in her 6-4, 6-2 victory over Lucie Safarova to get my teeth into. It’s a quick match dominated by quick points; how either woman can hit so many winners without any chance to get into a groundstroke rhythm is beyond me.
I know it’s a cliché to talk about Bartoli’s antics between points, but it really does have to be seen to be believed. She’s added a deep knee-bend to her vigorous bouncing and shadow-stroking, and her racquet weaves wildly from side to side as she crouches to return serve. The only thing as gymnastic on the court has been the varying pronunciations of Safarova’s surname this week; we’ve had ‘Shafarshawa’; today it’s ’Zhafazhova’; on Monday, courtesy of Lynn Welch, ’Saf… Safwasa … sha’. I should give credit to the umpires for making the effort to attempt to pronounce Safarova’s name correctly; I certainly had no idea it wasn’t simply ’Sa-fa-RO-va’ before this week.
However her name should be pronounced, the Czech is struggling, quickly down a break. Although she recovers for 4-4, it’s clear Safarova has no answer for Bartoli’s double-handed, flat game, which their head-to-head—6-1 in the Frenchwoman’s favor—suggests. The break back was marked by a lovely exchange for 0-30, during which Safarova actually constructed a point rather than attempting to go for a winner on the second shot, curling a succession of forehands wide to get Bartoli out of position before coming up with the closing shot. It’s a brief illustration of what Safarova is capable of when she plays intelligently and patiently; unfortunately it’s not repeated, as Bartoli continues to serve well and pummel the ball into the corners for a straight-sets victory.
Bartoli shares one important characteristic with the woman who takes the court next after her, Angelique Kerber: While neither of them necessarily look like great movers, they tend to be in the right spot to hit the ball most of the time. It’s just one of a number of things Kerber has done right this year in which she's cracked the Top 10. On her first visit to Eastbourne, she makes her seventh semifinal of the year after defeating Ekaterina Makarova, 6-2, 6-4.
The match is disturbed by threatening—and then actual—rain twice, played while the crowd are busy whipping off and putting on sun-hats and waterproofs at a rate of knots, umbrellas furling and unfurling like a floral clock gone mad. Makarova has played some stunning tennis this week, but she’s a touch off the pace today, and Kerber quickly breaks to lead 4-1. The German keeps pounding in big serves to Makarova’s forehand without giving her too much angle to work with on the return, following it up by using her secure cross-court backhand to push the Russian out wide to her forehand, something no other player has managed to consistently do this week.
After the rain falls in earnest, with Kerber a set and a break up, Makarova returns revitalized, but the German saves a break point with a forehand winner and stays secure on serve after that, eventually serving out the match. She will face Klara Zakopalova in the semifinals, with Bartoli to take on Tamira Paszek. It would be a good, if safe, bet that Bartoli and Kerber will meet in Saturday’s finals.
* * *
It’s my last day in Eastbourne, and while I feel like I haven’t really done justice to the unique atmosphere of this tournament, I have to mention one aspect of it: The knowledgeable, enthused crowd. To anybody who’s ever had the frustrating experience of sitting near other spectators who are audibly discussing the rules of tennis and frequently getting them wrong, or authoritatively making pronouncements like ‘The thing about Federer, is that being left-handed gives him such an advantage’, I can only recommend Eastbourne. The crowd here know the players—particularly on the WTA side—the kind of seasons they’ve been having, their records, and their games on grass. It’s not unusual to see a spectator carefully recording the score of every completed match in pencil on an order of play, or discover that one particular lady has sat in the same Centre Court seat for 30 years.
Concluding my Eastbourne experience also wouldn’t be complete without mention of The Buccaneer, the small pub that backs on to Devonshire Park. From the outside landing, you can look over the grounds and watch the day’s last few matches being played with a pint in your hand, but it’s also a congregating-place for the Eastbourne die-hards who swap stories about their years at the tournament and rants about the LTA. Enter the pub for a quick drink after play finishes, and you will inevitably be swept into their vortex. But their banter does make the point that, unusually for a mixed tournament, the women are very much still the stars here. Names like Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo are uttered frequently and reverently, interspersed with loud arguments about whether Wozniacki’s romantic situation or Bartoli’s new knee-bend are doing the players concerned any good. It may be a trifle inebriated, but if you want to find genuine passion about women’s tennis—often a sadly rare commodity at mixed tournaments—go to The Buccaneer during Eastbourne, order a pint of Kopparberg ‘naked apple’ cider, sit back and enjoy the show.
Hannah Wilks is a frequent contributor to TENNIS.com. You can read more of her Grass-Court Reports here.