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One last ball: Bartoli's Cinderella run at Wimbledon provided closure
The Frenchwoman had lost to Venus Williams in the 2007 final at the All England Club. Six years later, she would triumph on her 47th career appearance in a Grand Slam tournament.
Published Jul 10, 2020
Speaking last month about her well-deserved Wimbledon triumph in 2013, Marion Bartoli told me, “My father is a doctor and my Mom is a nurse. I come from a very tiny village in France of 2000 people. That my Dad and myself were able to achieve this is incredible. I became not only a Grand Slam champion, but to become the Wimbledon champion was incredible. When I go back to Wimbledon I see those pictures of myself from 2013. I will never forget that moment. I cherish it and it is a part of me. I am so proud of it.”
As well she should be. Bartoli was seeded 15th that year. When the fortnight on the lawns commenced, was she even thinking about the possibility of winning the tournament?
“Absolutely not,” says Bartoli. “In 2011, I was on a great roll and had reached the semifinals at Roland Garros. I won Eastbourne that year, which was the warmup tournament for Wimbledon. I really thought I could have a shot at Wimbledon after reaching the final in 2007. But in 2013 I was having one of my worst years ever.”
Bartoli pauses briefly before adding, “I was constantly injured in 2013. I was extremely tired. I decided with my father that I should have a different type of training. I went to Wimbledon hoping that I would be able to fight my way through the first week. Once I was in the quarterfinals, that is when I really believed I could win the tournament.”
From the outset, Bartoli was refusing to concede sets, bearing down hard on big points, and outplaying her opponents when it counted. She opened the tournament with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Elina Svitolina, followed with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Christina McHale. She then ousted Camila Giorgi, 6-4, 7-5, handled Karin Knapp, 6-2, 6-3, and halted No. 17 seed Sloane Stephens, 6-4, 7-5, to move into the semifinals.
Bartoli says, “I had no expectations at the start of the tournament. I just wanted to play every match at my fullest. I thought each time, ‘This is a match I need to win and I have to find a way to do that.’ I was able to deal with some closer situations, closing out sets at 7-5 and 6-4 that could have gone either way. It was such a tough draw to beat all of those great players.”
Asked to analyze her performances round by round, Bartoli says, “Svitolina, I had never played her before. I had zero knowledge of her game and just watched video of some of her matches. I did not start against McHale until 7:30 p.m. because of rain delays. You know by 9 p.m. or 9:15 they would postpone the match until the next day. I didn’t want that to happen. McHale plays a very defensive game but I knew in the close situations she would most likely give me one or two easy mistakes, which she did. I just had to stay sharp and focused.”
Against Giorgi, she faced a dynamic player capable of winning free points on serve and releasing blazing return of serve winners.
“Camila was kind of a revenge match for me because I lost to her one month before on clay, Bartoli remembers. “She just hit me off the court in that match. It was like a tornado coming to my face. So when I played her at Wimbledon, I remember asking my hitting partner in practice to go well inside the court to serve so I would be receiving serves from him that were coming at me faster and harder than usual, to really feel the full pace of every shot the way I would when I played Giorgi.”
Rain intruded again when Bartoli met Giorgi. She recounts, “Every time we would come back on court after the delays, I was able to grab one or two games in a row because she was not quite ready and I was.”
Speaking of Knapp, Bartoli points out, “Karin was on the side where Maria Sharapova lost early. She beat the girl [Michelle Larcher De Brito] who beat Maria. I had never played against her. I watched some of her matches and knew she was hitting the ball hard, but not moving so well. I knew if I could make her run and attack her first, I would have a good chance to win.”
Bartoli’s quarterfinal contest against Stephens on No.1 Court was pivotal and riveting.
“That was my hardest match of the whole Championships,” she asserts. “She moves so fast and is such an explosive player. She had nothing to lose against me. I was starting to think I was one of the players who could win Wimbledon, so I had to really calm myself down and not think about being in the final or winning the trophy. I had to think only about beating Sloane.”
The day of the Bartoli-Stephens match, the weather was uncooperative.
“There was more than one rain delay,” Bartoli recalls, “but an especially important one when I was leading 5-4 in the first set. When we came back she had to face set points. I was able to grab that set and then I was leading 2-0 in the second set. I got on a roll again after a rain delay. She ended up breaking me three or four times in that set, but somehow I was able to break even more. Honestly that match could have gone either way.”
Now Bartoli was through to the semifinals. Across the net stood No. 20 seed Kirsten Flipkens, a dangerous and versatile player. Bartoli took her apart, 6-1, 6-2.
She says, “Kirsten beat Petra Kvitova that year at Wimbledon. You must play the best tennis of your life to beat Petra on that surface. You don’t get to the semifinals just by chance, so I knew it could be a difficult match with Kirsten. But I talked to Amelie Mauresmo before the match.”
Mauresmo—one of only three French female players in history to take the world’s premier title in singles along with the legendary Suzanne Lenglen and Bartoli—had won Wimbledon seven years earlier. She gave her countrywoman some sound advice.
“Amelie told me ‘Look, of course Kirsten is playing some great tennis, but she has never been in a Wimbledon semifinal and you have,” Bartoli remembers. “You won that semifinal against Justine Henin. So against Flipkens, play your game, be inside the court, take your chances and come to the net on her backhand. She won’t be able to smack a passing shot by you. She will slice the ball back to you and you can volley. Try to take the game out of her hands.’”
That message worked like a dream for Bartoli. About that rout, she says, “Somehow everything I did worked. It was one of those days when every single ball you hit goes inside the court and I felt I could barely miss anything.”
And so Bartoli had arrived in another final, and the second time around she was far better prepared for the soaring occasion. How much did Bartoli benefit from the final she played against Venus Williams six years earlier?
“In my first final, I played Venus on Saturday after playing Henin on Friday, with no day off,” she responds. “That was hard. The pressure of a Wimbledon semifinal is something, but the pressure of a final is multiplied a thousand times. You walk on Centre Court and you can barely breathe. You feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is the final that every single player wants to play in their life.’ You have no idea if you are going to be able to play well, let alone win it.”
But that feeling of almost unbearable tension and discomfort was much more prevalent for Bartoli in 2007. In 2013, she realized that the tables had been turned and No. 23 seed Sabine Lisicki of Germany was the one feeling as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.
“I could see it in her eyes and her whole body,” says Bartoli. “She was not ready for that kind of pressure. She was just hit in the face by it. She was experiencing what I did in 2007. But in 2013, I knew exactly what I was going to face and I didn’t deny it. I just said, “Let’s have it.’ I changed my mentality with the way I was approaching a Wimbledon final and that was the biggest thing about that match.”
Bartoli played largely error-free tennis in the final. She set the tempo and established herself as the first woman ever to take the women’s title with two-fisted strokes off both wings.
“I was taking the ball very early and taking time away from my opponents,” she says. “I was always trying to be inside the court and I was able to pull off angles. My opponents were rushed more than usual when they played me.”
Against Lisicki—a big server too apprehensive to impose herself forcefully—Bartoli set the tempo from the back of the court and came through, 6-1, 6-4, to claim the highest honor of her career. It was her 47th career appearance in a Grand Slam tournament. No woman in the Open Era had waited longer before claiming a first major; 1998 Wimbledon victor Jana Novotna held the previous record by coming through on her 45th attempt.
Bartoli says, “I just forgot about everything. My whole brain and body was focused on winning the match. That is why I was so exhausted, drained and empty afterwards. I put so much energy and adrenaline into winning the biggest match of my career.”
That summer she tried playing the hard-court events in Toronto and Cincinnati but had no chance to do herself justice.
She explains, “When I tried to practice on the hard courts I felt my body was breaking into pieces. I could not practice more than 45 minutes. My right shoulder was hurting so much. Because I had so much pain in the shoulder, once I was in matches I started to have back problems, which led to hip problems. It was a chain that was breaking down piece by piece. I knew I had to stop.”
The decision to retire at 28 was wise yet simultaneously gut-wrenching for Bartoli in the summer of 2013.
“It was very hard to quit because once you have won a Grand Slam tournament you are finally able to have this recognition from everyone in the tennis world and you have this sort of aura,” she says. “It is so hard to leave when you are at the top of the world. You want to enter the court and be announced as the Wimbledon champion and sense those emotions.”
Having said that, she could balance the emotional scales by knowing what it took to win that Wimbledon title, and realizing that she had done it in the nick of time.
“I was going through a conflict in 2013 concerning retirement,” Bartoli says. “But somehow my brain said I had to win one Grand Slam tournament. I could not stop my career before that. Once I achieved that, I felt you could show me any challenge and I would be up for it. That is what I felt in my heart. My brain wanted to do it again and win more Grand Slams, but the rest of my body was telling me to stop. So that was it. I just could not do it anymore.”