Stories of the Year: Bartoli's Wimbledon Win and Federer's Struggles
With the 2013 tennis season in the past, it's time to dole out our annual awards. Look for the winners—for better or worse—throughout this week on TENNIS.com. (To see what's been unveiled thus far, click here.)
Bartoli's Wimbledon Win: For a long time leading up to this last Wimbledon, we’d been offered Grand Slam finals that almost always featured all the usual suspects, led by Serena Williams and the ATP Big Four. That’s one of the main reasons that Marion Bartoli’s triumph at Wimbledon is the women's Story of the Year.
Not only did Bartoli burst out of the hinterlands to win the most prestigious of titles, she played a final that was absolutely worthy of the event. While her opponent, Sabine Lisicki, also could be called an unusual suspect, the performance Bartoli came up with ruled out any temptation to dismiss her achievement with the crack, “Well, somebody had to win it.”
One of the dominant realities in tennis is that the greater chance a Slam-less player has to win a title, the more pressure she’s likely to feel in the face of such a rare opportunity. True, Bartoli had been to a previous Wimbledon final, but after she was crushed in that 2007 clash with Venus Williams it appeared unlikely she would ever have the chance to redeem herself. After all, the 29-year-old Frenchwoman had only been as far as the Wimbledon quarterfinals on one occasion in the interim.
But there she was in July, looking across the net at another surprise finalist in Lisicki, both presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And while the German was untested in a Grand Slam championship match, her booming serve, relish for attaching, and sky-high level of play—including wins over Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska—pointed toward a Lisicki win.
As for Bartoli, seeded No. 15, she hadn’t faced a single player ranked above her during the fortnight.
Ultimately, the main theme of the match was Lisicki’s inability to handle the scale of the occasion. She played poorly—so much so that she wept tears of frustration. Only a too-little, too-late surge kept this from becoming one of the most lopsided demolitions in Wimbledon history.
And yet, across the net, Bartoli was in absolute command of her game, her focus, and her emotions. Taking up her stance on or inside the baseline, the eccentric stylist fired away with both hands on the handle of her racquet, forehand and backhand. Her shots were crisp, bold, and laser-like—a tribute to her father, Dr. Walter Bartoli, who designed her high-risk, aggressive baseline game. Clearly, Dr. Bartoli had modeled his daughter’s game on the one employed by that iconic champion who dominated the game in the early 1990s, Monica Seles. Yet Seles never did manage a win at Wimbledon.
The match lasted an hour and 21 minutes, and Lisicki avoided utter humiliation by winning three games after trailing 6-1, 5-1. Bartoli finished her off with an ace, though, of which she later said, “I’ve been practicing my serve for so long. God, at least I saved it for the last moment.”
This was a wonderful triumph of the iconoclast, for Bartoli has been nothing throughout her career if not original. She underscored that in the wake of her great win. After winning just one more WTA match, Bartoli stunned the tennis community on the eve of the U.S. Open by declaring that she’s officially retiring from tennis.
Hers is one comeback that many of us would not mind seeing.
The Struggles of Roger: For many years, Roger Federer’s name was often seen in the vicinity of a word that begins with D: Dominance. Recently, though, he’s come to be associated with another, less-pleasant D-word: Decline.
At first it was used as part of a question, maybe the most frequently asked question in tennis history: Do you think Federer is in decline? This was first asked in the summer of 2008, when he surrendered Wimbledon and the No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal. In 2010 and 2011, it gained more urgency, as Federer’s share of major titles, well, declined. He put a temporary stop to those questions in 2012, when he regained the Wimbledon title and the No. 1 ranking. Just as important, while Federer wasn’t winning as many Slams overall, he still began this season having reached the quarterfinals or better at the last 34 of them, dating back to 2004. As he entered his 30s, he may have come down from the mountaintop, but at least he hadn’t fallen off a cliff.
Then 2013 happened. Federer started the year with a run to the semifinals at the Australian Open. Nothing too ominous there, except that Andy Murray beat him for the first time at a major in that match, a fact that felt significant for the career trajectories of both players, and would prove to be so. Two months later, the news for Federer got worse when he came to Indian Wells with a back problem and couldn’t make his quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal competitive. At the French Open, he was outhit, outrun, and outplayed in straight sets by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Finally, the bottom dropped out at Wimbledon, where he lost in the second round to world No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky. Federer’s quarterfinal streak was over, and he had failed to reach the second week at his favorite tournament for the first time since 2002.
It was enough to make the famously stubborn Swiss do something that many experts had been urging him to do for years: Try a new, larger, possibly more powerful racquet. But the experiment went nowhere when he lost early, to Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands, in Hamburg and Gstaad, and his still-achy back kept him from practicing at full speed. The nadir came at the U.S. Open, when Federer, stuck with his old stick and shunted off to little Louis Armstrong Stadium, lost to Tommy Robredo for the first time in 11 matches. There was no way around it. This was what decline looked like.
Yet Federer, as he has after down years in the past, rallied during the fall indoor season. He recorded two wins over Juan Martin del Potro, and his losses came to Nadal and Novak Djokovic rather than Robredo and Stakhovsky. When he scrapped and scrambled his way into the semifinals at the year-end event in London, the free-fall appeared to be over.
Which leaves us with a new question: Can Federer rise again in 2014? I thought his words in London were appropriate and even encouraging. The ranking, he said, doesn’t matter the way it once did, and the Grand Slams are no longer the be-all and end-all for him. He just wants to win tournaments again. If he can do that and be satisfied, who are we to use the D-word around him?