LONDON—Leave it to Serena Williams. Not to make herself a threat at Wimbledon immediately after coming back from a year on the sidelines, though she did do that. Not to show off, for the thousandth time, her uncanny knack for playing her best when she absolutely must, though she did that as well. Not even to make the press room a livelier and less predictable place, though she certainly scored in that department. Asked if her loss today was a positive sign for the depth of the WTA, Serena said, “Yes, I’m super happy that I lost. Go women’s tennis.” Sarcasm was detected by some.
No, what Serena brought back to tennis was the type of edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat excitement that you can only get when a player of her stature and persona is fighting for her life and on the verge of defeat. I don’t feel that when Nadal or Federer or anyone else at the top of the game is about to go down, but I did today as I was watching Serena hold off four match points and bring herself to the verge of an unlikely third set against Marion Bartoli. I had no rooting interest in this match, but it was still the most exciting I've seen, from an emotional standpoint, in this tournament. To me, that’s why it’s good to have Serena back.
But that’s a story for the future now, because this day belonged to Bartoli. I’ve always enjoyed her strange brand of tennis, mainly because, after the dancing feet and the shadow stroking and the painful-looking service stance and all of the other rigmarole that her and her father have layered onto her game, she makes such fabulous contact, and, with her extra-long racquet, creates sharp and daring angles with the ball that we haven’t seen from anyone since her fellow two-hand-forehander Monica Seles.
At the same time, I've also wondered what the extra stuff was doing for her. Does it really help you to serve 10 shadow serves before your real one? Is your backhand going to be any more accurate because you’ve taken three practice cuts with it before a point? Is a fist-pump at the end of the first game of the match going to carry you all the way through? I liked the game, but not the shtick.
But today Bartoli said something interesting when she was asked about her bouncing and fist-pumping, and what they do for her as motivation.
“Usually during those matches when I was playing against some great champion, like Serena or somebody like that, I was a bit more shy, not showing too much on court,” Bartoli answered with her usual mix of intelligence and candor (she’s one of the few athletes who, before uttering a standard-issue answer, will say, ‘I know this is a cliché, but . . .'”). “My opponent was really like taking all the space," she continued, "and I was not able to do really anything, just appear on the scene. So it’s really important for me to believe that I can win the match and overall act as a winner.”
So, in their way, Bartoli’s antics are a way for her to assert her own personality on court, a way of not being a passive actor, someone who is, as she said, just “on the scene.” This was especially important for Bartoli today, she said, because of how “huge” Serena’s personality and reputation are, and how intimidating it is to see her on the other side of the net. Bartoli said that she had to stay in her “bubble” out there if she was going to face up to the pressure of beating Serena, and she was especially proud of how she handled losing three match points at 6-5 and still “bouncing back”—Bartoli knows her English slang—to win the tiebreaker. How many times have we seen players get close to the finish line against Serena, fail to cross it, and then cave in to the seeming inevitability of defeat? Bartoli’s between-points activity may be over the top from an aesthetic perspective, but they kept Serena from “taking up all the space”—emotional space—on the court.
Bartoli also had some recent experience with adversity to fall back on. She saved match points against Lourdes Dominguez two rounds ago and beat Flavia Pennetta 9-7 in the third in a wild match this weekend. At one stage, Bartoli said she “lost my mind for 10 seconds,” and ordered her parents away from the court. “I’m not proud of that,” Bartoli admitted today, but mom and dad were back in her box on Court 1—sitting too far away, fortunately, to be sent off. Bartoli said the two previous wins were in the back of her head when she started the tiebreaker today, and the confidence she had from them helped her stay calm.
What else did Bartoli do well? She matched Serena in the serving department, especially on big points. She hit with her from the ground and even backed Serena up much of the time. And she defended her vulnerable two-handed forehand from Serena’s crosscourt angles, a play that the American was using with more and more success as the match went on. Bartoli was even feeling gutsy enough to move inside the baseline on Serena’s first and second serves. I thought it was a foolish play, but taking her return early is what got her a break at 5-5 in the second. She popped the ball up the line with her backhand before Serena was ready and earned a break point. Bartoli made all of her unconventionality work for her.
What about Serena? She said afterward that she missed too many balls, didn’t have much feel, and that Bartoli played so well that she looked over and wondered who this version of Marion was and where she had been hiding. She said that if she keeps it up, she’ll be “Top 5, minimum.”
Serena is a famous slow starter, and that was true again during this tournament. She’s a player who needs to be threatened, to feel the threat of defeat. That’s a great and almost unique trait to have—she’s one of the few humans who loosens up under pressure, who needs and relishes pressure—but it’s also double-edged. Its gotten her out of a hundred desperate situations, but it has also contributed to putting her in those situations in the first place. If you go to the brink often enough, you’re going to go over it eventually. Serena might have survived one more time if it hadn’t been for the quality of Bartoli’s serve. It was going to be tough for the Frenchwoman to win a rally at match point—Serena basically stopped missing on the MPs against her—but she didn’t have to worry about it after her last serve caught the line. Even Serena couldn’t do anything about that.
“At the end of the day,” Serena said about this Wimbledon, “I think I did pretty good.” She said she came here expecting to win the title, but she didn’t act as devastated by this defeat as she had after other losses here, though Serena chalked that up to being “a good actress.” See, she’ll always make the press room a little livelier. And even in a straight-set defeat, she’ll put a tennis fan’s heart in his or her throat.
The sounds I’ll remember most from this match will be the wild shrieks and “Allez!’s that Bartoli made after winning crucial points. They may have sounded a little wacky, like everything she does. But they were the sound of someone learning that she could play more than a bit role on the big stage. They were the sound of her creating some space for herself on the court, and filling it up with the best tennis of her career. Bartoli said afterward that the win was her biggest yet, and “a dream come true.” She would probably admit that that’s kind of a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less sweet to say it.