No. 1 of a Kind

Saturday, July 06, 2013 /by
Camerawork USA
Camerawork USA

WIMBLEDON, England—Chalk this one up for the misfits and the odd ones, the ones who do it their own way no matter what else anyone thinks, because that’s the only way they know how. As of today, the world, or at least the tennis world, must accept and respect one more of your kind. From now on, no one can watch Marion Bartoli do a knee bend or shuffle step or practice cut or fist-pump and ask, “Why?” No one can look at her two-handed ground strokes and volleys, or her flatter-than-flat shots, or her second serve that’s just like a first serve, or her returns hit from a foot inside the baseline and say, “That’ll never work.” More precisely, no one can watch her and think, “She'll never win Wimbledon doing that.”

Marion Bartoli—28-year-old, No. 15 seed, veteran of just one other Grand Slam final—has won Wimbledon. She did it without dropping a set, and she lost just five games to Sabine Lisicki, conqueror of Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska, in a one-hour and 21-minute final. When it was over, Bartoli still didn’t believe it.

As her final shot, an ace, kicked up a spray of chalk, she put her hands to her head; but then she took them away again, as if she wasn’t 100 percent sure the match had really ended. A few minutes later, when tournament referee Andrew Jarrett walked over to congratulate her, Bartoli’s reaction was to cover her mouth with her hand: “Can you believe what I just did?” was her message. And when she finally walked off the court, holding the champion's dish but still shaking her head in disbelief, Bartoli was shown an inscription of her name on the club wall. It was already there on the honor roll of champions, in gold letters, right below Serena Williams'. Bartoli pointed at it and started laughing.

“I could see the ball landing,” Bartoli said of her match-winning shot. She was still a little stunned during her press conference two hours later. “The chalk comes out, it’s an ace, and I just win Wimbledon. You can’t describe that kind of feeling. You cannot put any words to what I feel in this moment. I’ll have to see the pictures, to see the match again on DVD to kind of start realizing it.” 

Every champion in every sport says something along these lines, that it will take time for the win to sink in; but you know it’s true for Marion Bartoli.

From the way she played in the semifinals and final, though, could anyone doubt that she had a right be on that winner’s list at the All England Club? Yes, Bartoli benefited mightily from circumstance. She’s the first woman in history to win Wimbledon without beating a Top 10 player, and the players she faced in the semis and final, Kirsten Flipkens and Lisicki, both suffered the tennis version of a panic attack on those unfamiliar big stages. Yet Bartoli was masterful in both matches, taking the ball as early as possible, burning up the grass with her laser-beam backhands, and never letting her opponents get a foothold at the baseline—which is pretty much what she’s been doing since she was 6 years old. Wimbledon in 2013 has been the most unusual in memory, especially on the women’s side. I’d say Bartoli is just the right champion for this fortnight.

"It's always been a part of my personality to be different," said Bartoli, who became the first player in the Open era to win Wimbledon using two hands on both sides. "I think being just like the other ones is kind of boring."

Yesterday I picked Lisicki to win this match in three sets. She had seemed to be on a mission to me. I thought her comeback wins over Williams and Radwanska would keep her from getting down on herself if she fell behind. And Lisicki did rally from match point down at 1-5 in the second to make it a respectable 6-4. After spending the first 13 games shanking forehands and struggling with her service toss, suddenly she couldn’t miss—she actually finished with six more winners than Bartoli. But that’s Sabine. In the end, after taming her inconsistency for two weeks, she went hot and (mostly) cold again. This time she was cold for too long.

“It’s an occasion you don’t get every day,” Lisicki said when asked if nerves had affected her. “Everything is a little bit different. You’ve been here for two weeks. The feeling, atmosphere gets different.”

Lisicki said she was a little tired from her previous matches, but that she had learned a lot at this event. 

“I’ll learn and take away so much from it,” Lisicki said, smile still firmly in place. “This tournament made me a better player.”

There’s no question that Lisicki will be a threat at Wimbledon in the future; she comes alive on the grass. The question is what happens everywhere else. If she doesn’t want to have to face Serena in the round of 16, she’ll need to get her ranking higher than its current No. 24.

When it was over, Bartoli dashed across the court—Marion loves to run; she may run to the kitchen to make coffee in the morning—and then up into the stands. There she saved her biggest hug for her father, Walter. It was his “crazy” techniques and practice routines that made her the unique player she is, and over the years he had often been the only person in her player box at tournaments. So it was both poignant and ironic that she would win Wimbledon, of all things, a few months after he stopped working as her coach. 

But maybe it wasn’t coincidental. One of the sub-themes of this year’s fortnight has been the father-coach. Like Bartoli, Bernard Tomic played some of his best tennis of the season with his own obsessive father, John, banned from the grounds. And the woman who nearly faced Bartoli in the final, Radwanska, has had much more success in the two years since she split with her father, Robert, who was the inspiration for own eccentric style. 

In light of all three of these players’ sometimes-troubled parental relationships, it was nice to see Bartoli share the moment with her father. And it was no surprise that when she was asked about him, she took the time to reflect at length on her past, the good and the bad, and to say that because of what happened today, the years of work had been worth it.

“When it happen,” Bartoli said of winning Wimbledon, “when it actually happen, you felt like you achieve something that you dream about for maybe millions of hours. You went through pain, you went through tears, you went through low moments, and actually it happened.

“Those five, 10 seconds before you shake the hands of your opponent, you felt like you’re almost not walking any more on earth. You’re really flying. So to share this moment with my dad, I was looking at him in the player’s box. He was really cheering me on.

"That was the perfect day. It was sunny. It was beautiful. Centre Court Wimbledon, it was packed. I won in two sets...Even in my perfect dream I couldn’t have dreamed a perfect moment like that.”

Celebrate one of your own, misfits: Marion Bartoli, queen of a Wimbledon turned upside down. The weirdest moments for everyone else might just be your perfect day.

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