It was supposed to be tough. The highest seed that defending champion Serena Williams could play in the fourth round—No. 9—was the one she did, so her match against Marion Bartoli was supposed to be close, even on paper. But that paper stuff doesn't apply to a woman who, you suspect, looks at draws and seedings and other tennis minutiae only if she’s in the mood for a good laugh. After nearly a year away, Serena was the oddsmakers’ favorite going into this round, but she lost, owing to rust and to a Frenchwoman who wouldn’t be stopped today.
Bartoli won this high-quality match, with its fair share of breathtaking points, in just under two hours by a score of 6-3, 7-6 (6), handing Serena her first fourth-round loss at Wimbledon. Bartoli advances to the quarters, while Serena, the greatest player of her generation, will drop down to about No. 180 in the rankings.
On the hottest day of the tournament thus far, Bartoli, who barely survived her last two matches, played her hottest tennis of the fortnight, particularly in the first set. She outplayed Serena in nearly all areas and did to her what the American often does to others: Served better. Bartoli won more of her first serves and much more of her second serves, which were faster than Serena’s. Bartoli also dictated from the baseline during her service games and sometimes during Serena’s. Her returns and her groundstrokes came back with such speed, accuracy and depth that Serena found herself unprepared. As the commentators noted with wonder, Bartoli was the player hitting the ball hardest. Most surprising, she managed to do all this while making one fewer error than Serena in the first set (seven to eight). Still, it wasn’t easy. After Serena saved a few set points with aces, Bartoli finally took the set on her sixth set point, with an ace of her own.
Serena, for her part, didn’t serve as well as she usually does. She hit eight aces, hardly the 19 from her best days last year. And she misfired on basic shots, especially off her forehand side, and missed midcourt balls into the net. She didn’t anticipate as well as she might have with more match play under her belt.
Still, a woman not known for going away on the grandest stages didn’t do that today. By the end her stats were fine (29 winners and 20 errors, compared to Bartoli's 21 winners and 17 errors ), and she saved four match points, one with the fiercest of returns, another with an ace down the middle. Bartoli eventually won this on her fifth match point with an unreturnable serve out wide.
Serena was one of three former Wimbledon winners remaining in the draw, and Bartoli was one of three other players to have won a grass-court tournament. She won that title, her sixth overall, earlier this month in Eastbourne, beating three Top 10 players along the way. She's also reached two other finals this year (one at Indian Wells) and the semis of the French Open. There’s a reason she’s at a career-best No. 9 ranking.
Then there’s The Serena (as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova once referred to her). A woman who, her WTA bio states simply, “began playing tennis at age 5 at public courts in Compton, California” but whose name appears in this year’s WTA Wimbledon preview 66 times. (Caroline Wozniacki’s name appears 15 times, and the names of five women in this round don’t appear at all.) Whether you love her or hate her, there’s no denying—except for the delusional and wacky—that she’s a player apart. This loss, the rust and that she's announced it in third person doesn’t make it any less valid: Serena’s back. Though Bartoli, who said this was “almost like a dream come true,” moves on to the quarters, that’s the story of the tournament. So far.