Destiny's Children

Friday, July 05, 2013 /by

WIMBLEDON, England—Sabine Lisicki vs. Marion Bartoli for the Wimbledon title: Kind of a jolt, isn’t it? The good kind, in my opinion, the kind that widens our sense of the possibilities in tennis. The sport has been logical and rigid at the top for long enough that it can live with an out-of-the-blue happening like this one, even on its most important stage. It makes us remember that every tournament, including Wimbledon, is a new and potentially unique one.

As I wrote in my preview of the semifinals, one of the intriguing aspects of this year’s women’s event has been the chance to see players chase a dream that may have seemed out of reach a week ago, but is now staring them right in the face. The semifinals showed the kind of performance that opportunity can produce, in Bartoli’s near-perfect demolition of a hobbled Kirsten Flipkens. An hour or so later, we saw that same opportunity inspire an urgently competitive, high-quality semifinal between Sabine Lisicki and Agnieszka Radwanska. The final may or may not be a classic, but one thing is certain: We’ll get two women trying to do something they’ve never done before, trying to surprise themselves and us.

For that reason alone, this match is hard to predict. Bartoli has played one Grand Slam final, at Wimbledon in 2007. That day she pulled out all of her her trademark hops and leaps and practice cuts, but she never got her game properly revved up, and lost to a far superior Venus Williams 6-4, 6-1. Yesterday, Bartoli recalled that rain had forced her to play the semifinal, in which she upset Justine Henin in three sets, and the final within 24 hours of each other. This time she’s looking forward to being well-rested. As for Lisicki, she'll be making her Grand Slam final debut. That will be a new experience, but a supportive Centre Court crowd should help. Sabine loves Wimbledon, and it loves her back; they don't call her "Doris Becker" in the tabloids here for nothing.

Lisicki is 3-1 lifetime against Bartoli. The two have actually played twice before at Wimbledon. Bartoli won in straight sets in 2008, while Lisicki won 6-1 in the third set in the quarterfinals two years ago. That match, as you can see from the highlights at the top of this post, was played under the roof, though the rain still managed to find a way inside. My memory is that Lisicki was able to move Bartoli wide with her hook forehand and exploit the Frenchwoman’s two-handed forehand and its lack of reach. Judging from the clip above, Lisicki was also effective with her drop shot, as she has been at this year’s Wimbledon—Bartoli should be looking for it in the final. But just like Thursday, when she was broken while serving for the match against Radwanska, Lisicki had to win this match twice. She lost a 9-7 tiebreaker to Bartoli in the second set before running away with the third. 

Rain isn’t predicted for London on Saturday, so this match will likely be played outdoors. Looking at their current form, I’d give a slight edge to Lisicki, especially from a psychological perspective. The German has beaten the world’s No. 1 and No. 4 players, after being down 0-3 in the third set to both of them. She won’t feel like she’s out of this one until the last point is played. Bartoli hasn’t dropped a set all tournament, but she also hasn’t faced anyone in the Top 15. She has been the aggressor in her matches, but in Lisicki she’ll face a woman who serves and hits bigger than she does. 

Both players are capable of stunning tennis one day and middling the next; for Lisicki, that transition often happens from set to set. Bartoli, as she showed in her epic zone session against Petra Kvitova at last year’s U.S. Open, can run away with a match against anyone. But the same is true for Lisicki; if Boom Boom’s bombs are on target, few can stay with her—even Serena. As for how they fare in finals, Bartoli, who is five years older, has seven career titles to the German's three.

It’s possible that Lisicki will have an adverse reaction to her first Grand Slam title match; Bartoli will at least know what it feels like to walk on Centre Court with the whole world watching at 2:00 P.M. But I’ll still take the German based on her resilience against Williams and Radwanska, and the calm confidence she has shown in herself on court and in her interviews. There’s something extra, something knowing, in the ever-present upward curl of her lips these days. I can easily see the match twisting and turning through three sets, but having watched Lisicki survive two of those twisters at this tournament, I'll expect her to survive again.

Imagine, for a second, the reaction of either if they win. I doubt we’ll forget it anytime soon. Lisicki may dissolve into one big tear—if she can lift herself off the grass, that is. Bartoli will...God knows what Bartoli will do, but I’d love to see it. For the German, it would cap a surreal two-week run in which the inconsistency that has always held her back was banished, and she was allowed to fulfill the promise that has always resided in her powerful swings. For the Frenchwoman, it would mean finally putting to rest the snickering skepticism that follows every crazy-looking knee bend and shuffle step she does between points. If those mad moves are good enough to win Wimbledon, they should never be questioned again.

Whether it’s Lisicki or Bartoli, we can’t expect the winner to act like she’s been there before. That's one more reason to watch.

The Pick: Lisicki in three sets

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