Fast Breaks at Wimbledon

Tuesday, July 02, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

WIMBLEDON, England—Marion Bartoli made one fundamental mistake in her 6-4, 7-5 win over Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. At 4-5 in the first set she tried to stop play because it had begun, very lightly, to rain. Anywhere else, this may have been understandable, but apparently not in Great Britain. Here rain is the default weather setting, after all. Bartoli’s insistence—she complained not just to the chair umpire, but to the referee at the back of the court—was enough to earn her the wrath of the No.1 Court 1 crowd for the rest of the match. By wrath, of course, I mean Wimbledon-style wrath. The frenzied Frenchwoman was modestly booed on a few occasions, and when she double-faulted, perhaps a third of the crowd clapped. 

But this vicious display of partisanship wasn’t enough to keep Bartoli from reaching her second Wimbledon semifinal. 

“Honestly, it didn’t matter much to me,” she said later. “They want to see some more tennis. It’s normal for them to cheer for the underdog, and I feel I did pretty well with that.”

As Bartoli reminded us, distractions have always been the name of her game.

“I’ve been really much prepared for everything,” she said, referring to the eccentric training methods of her father, who has also been her coach for most of her life. “Especially my childhood and the way my dad made me practice, the condition I had to practice in was really the toughest in the world. He has always been my strength to really be able to focus mentally and stay strong no matter what is happening.”

Ironically, Bartoli has made this run without her father, Walter, who has been the one enduring presence on the sidelines during her career. The two have been an on-again, off-again team lately, and she has experimented with other coaches; she’s here with 2006 Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo in her corner. But Bartoli, at 28, knows her own game by now, and she knows that her flat shots and the ultra-acute angles she creates with her roundhouse strokes are well-suited to grass. In 2007, she beat Justine Henin to reach the final here, and two years ago she knocked out Serena Williams in the fourth round.

“Every time, for some reason, I don’t know why, I’m back here [at Wimbledon] I have a smile on my face” said Bartoli, who pulled out of Eastbourne last week with a virus. “I felt great right away.”

She has played irreproachable tennis during the fortnight so far. With some help from the draw—she was scheduled to play Maria Sharapova in the fourth round—Bartoli has reached the semifinals without dropping a set. Today she showed what those flat angles can do again, as she had Stephens on the move for most of the day. She attacked Sloane’s backhand relentlessly, and jumped on her serve. In the second set, Bartoli won 17 of the first 18 points on Stephens’ serve.

“For some reason,” Bartoli said, “I felt really good on my return the second part and not on my serve. The return of serve has been a strength.” 

There were 10 breaks in the match, but Bartoli said she thought that, "for a grass-court match, it was a good one.” And she went on to praise the 20-year-old Stephens, who was playing in just her second Wimbledon.

“I really thought she played some amazing shots,” Bartoli said of Sloane. “I think for someone who’s 19 [Stephens turned 20 in March], she’s doing an awesome job out there....It could also have been her day. She could have beat me today, as well.” 

Through much of the first set, Stephens was indeed playing some of her best tennis of the tournament. She kept pace with Bartoli on serve until 4-4, and then had two break points that she couldn’t convert. Stephens had 21 winners to just six for Bartoli, even though it felt like the American spent much of the match on the defensive. Her backhand was hit and miss much of the time, and she finished with 19 errors to just 12 for Bartoli.

Stephens leaves having reached her second Grand Slam quarterfinal, and she has made the fourth round or better at the last three majors. Her spring slump is, for the moment, a thing of the past. Still, she was disappointed in her play today. 

“I think my serve really just let me down in the second set,” Stephens said with a shrug. But she’s not complaining about a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon.

“I’m playing well," she said. "A lot of people didn’t make the quarterfinals of Wimbledon this year. I never thought, like, oh, I wasn’t playing good.”

Sloane said she realizes that she likes grass, and that she thinks she learned from this tournament about how to handle, or how not to handle, the stop-and-start rhythm that comes with rain delays. Other than that, she said that she was “moving forward” and “going to work hard,” and that she would “keep going” and “keep working” and “have fun” and “compete hard” and “move on.” A sort of blank look comes across Stephens’ face at these stages of a press conference. She’s over the questions about her future, and when she loses she wants to get the answers over with, too. Sloane didn't say so, but this must have been a particularly tough loss, considering that Bartoli will go on to play Kirsten Flipkens for a chance at the Wimbledon final, a final that won't feature Serena Williams. As you can see from the photo above, Stephens showed her fiery side on Tuesday.

One more question before we go: Can we start calling Sloane a big-stage player after this tournament, someone who brings her best when it matters most? Going strictly by her record this season, the answer is yes. In 2013, Stephens’ is 12-3 at the majors; her record everywhere else is 11-10. It’s hard to remember now, but two months ago she appeared to hit rock bottom when she lost 6-2, 6-0 to Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round at Charleston. So the simple fact that she can say, “I’m playing well,” after this tournament is progress.

On the other hand, Stephens didn’t beat a seed at this event or in her fourth-round run in Paris, and she was the beneficiary of a final-set collapse by Petra Cetkovska in the third round here. Sloane was seeded 17th at both the French Open and Wimbledon; in a 16-seed system, there’s a good chance she wouldn’t have made it as far at either tournament. Stephens won three of her four matches at Wimbledon in three sets, and she was in danger of losing them all. That shows she can win the close ones, and that she can win without her best; but it also shows that she was up-and-down all tournament. There was no knockout, here’s-what-I-can-do type of performance among those wins. 

Still, Sloane is unquestionably in a better place than when she left the U.S. after her bottoming-out loss to Mattek-Sands. Now she has to go back and face the expectations at home again this summer, the same ones that derailed her after her triumphant return from the Australian Open.

Not surprisingly, Sloane says she’s, “Just going to go out and have fun and compete hard” back in the U.S. this summer. But she also knows what she's in for.

“It definitely tough in the States,” she said. “It’s much tougher than it is in Europe. Not that they don't care about me here, but it's low-key here. It’s definitely going to be tough going back.”

How will Sloane cope? She says she may take a page from her (even younger) British counterpart, Laura Robson.

“Maybe I’ll talk to Laura," Stephens said, with one of her few laughs of the day, "and see how she feels about playing here.”

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