Bartoli: An Acquired Taste

Thursday, July 11, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Although any year is a good one to win Wimbledon, 2013 wasn’t the greatest of years to be crowned champion of the “Ladies’ Singles.” Somehow, it only figures that outlier Marion Bartoli would have her career achievement immediately buried in the avalanche of public interest and media coverage of Andy Murray’s success.

But really, has anyone since Jana Novotna seemed simultaneously so credible yet so surprising a champion? Bartoli arguably became the most unlikely Wimbledon champion since Novotna, who won in 1998, while Scotland’s Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry 77 years ago. Bartoli was as swiftly forgotten as Viriginia Wade, the last Brit to win a Wimbledon singles title, during the tournament’s centenary celebration in 1977.

I say “arguably” because you could also make a case for Petra Kvitova as the ultimate surprise champ. And before either of these two contenders call it a career, it may appear that way. But I still give the nod to Bartoli, because Kvitova’s game seemed tailor-made for success at Wimbledon, and when she won it at the tender age of 21 it seemed that tennis had minted a new player destined for greatness. It didn’t quite work out that way, but we didn’t know that then.

By the beginning of 2012, Kvitova found herself a few swings of the racquet from the No. 1 ranking; by contrast, Bartoli is 27 years old and had never come anywhere near the top spot. Sure, she had been in a Wimbledon final before, but she had never come close to duplicating that run of 2007. As the years went by, that streak seemed a pure fluke. The only other time Bartoli reached the quarterfinal round was 2011, when she was beaten convincingly there by. . . Sabine Lisicki. The German girl was the overnight heroine of the London crowd this year until Bartoli made her pay for the honor by whipping her, but good, in the title match.

But there’s another, perhaps deeper and less supportable reason for why Bartoli’s triumph is so surprising, as well as so meaningful. I hinted at it when I used the word “outlier” above to describe her. Bartoli is an acquired taste that few ever really acquire. Her win at Wimbledon repeats a statement made fairly often in tennis—that an aspiring player doesn’t have to conform, kow-tow, or study the owner’s manual when it comes to developing a game good enough to win the most prestigious tournament in the world.

Bartoli has always colored outside the lines. She’s different, from her shape to her double-handed game, from her claims to intellectual superiority to those bizarre between-point rituals meant to keep her focused, from her favorite pastime (painting) to her apparent lack of social grace—who but Bartoli could actually keep a straight face as she declared, “It (winning Wimbledon) will not change me as a person because I will always remain the same: Very humble, very low-key and easygoing, down-to-earth.”

Isn’t it someone else who’s supposed to describe you that way, Marion? Never mind.

And then there’s her unusual game, that aggressive, flat, stand-your-ground mentality that her dad, Walter, a doctor moonlighting as a tennis rocket scientist, implanted in his impressionable daughter. She embraced the challenge of playing that way, and remained faithful to it—which is one of the most telling and flattering things you could say about the girl. For as Bartoli’s resume attests, that style of play can bring you heartache, week-in, week-out, unless you get extremely lucky, everything falls into place, and. . . you win Wimbledon. Then, the sacrifice manifest in all those losses doesn’t seem so onerous.

I can put all those fancy words into a simpler form: Bartoli was ranked No. 15 at the start of Wimbledon, and she had yet to get beyond a quarterfinal this year at any tournament, big or small. But at Wimbledon, she didn’t lose a set. That game, ever perched on the fine line between lethality and lunacy, paid off. She’ll never have to win another tournament with it again.

But there’s more. Bartoli’s success was a victory over convention and tennis formality. In that sense, hers was something like an artistic achievement, something like the ultimate triumph of abstract painter—although Bartoli and others who take that minimalist approach will have to win loads of majors before her kind of game appears to be the only one in town. 

“Well, yeah, it’s always been a part of my personality to be different,” Bartoli said, after fulfilling a lifelong dream in London. “I think being just like the other one is. . . kind of boring. I really embrace the fact of being a bit different and doing something that not everyone is absolutely doing.

“I actually love that part of my game. . .  at the end of the day, when the spectators were looking at 10 matches they will remember this girl that was doing something different, playing inside the court or whatever.”

Curiously, though, this recalcitrant individualism was leavened in Bartoli by good common sense, and the kind of athletic intelligence that often goes unremarked. This win was created with something more than Any Rand-ish individualism. She qualified her riff on conformity by adding, “Today I was pretty smart to kind of back up a little bit to give me an extra maybe half a second or something to react to Sabine’s serve.  Sometimes you have to adapt also, as well.”

Okay, everyone is subject to the laws of physics and the reality of power servers. It was wise of Bartoli to make that adjustment, but she still demonstrated that there’s nothing quite as sweet as the taste of vindication for someone who’s struggled to prove a point despite a chorus of naysayers.

And there’s more yet. This unexpected win was that rarest of occurrences, best categorized as a—cliché-be-damned, this is the stone-cold truth—“dream come true.” You tell me, who would have predicted a Bartoli win, even with the knowledge that Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova would be out of the picture before the final weekend?

As a person, Bartoli has an edge: She’s not one to disarm or lull her interlocutors into agreement. But whose heart doesn’t melt when you read what she said about this victory? “That was the perfect day. It was sunny. It was beautiful. Centre Court Wimbledon, it was packed. I won in two sets. I didn’t drop a set for the whole championship. Even in my perfect dream I couldn’t have dreamed a perfect moment like that. That is beyond perfection.”

So what does Bartoli for an encore? If you have to ask that, you probably don’t get it. Personally, I doubt that she’ll ever win another major, not because her game is inadequate—it most certainly is not. But it’s hard to sustain the level she needs through seven consecutive matches. Her margin of error on every front is small. But more important, the number of people who have experienced perfection is minute, and those who have known it twice is much smaller yet.

Outliers like Bartoli aren’t designed to dominate, day-in, day-out. They’re there to remind us that everyone has a right to dream, and that there’s time and room for far more dreams to come true in this world than skeptics might think.

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