Marion Bartoli: Never say never again
Marion Bartoli was the great surprise story of last year's Wimbledon when, partly inspired by James Bond, she beat the odds to go all the way to the women's final. Life has been tough since but, she tells Paul Newman, we should not write her off just yet
Saturday 14 June 2008
Playing in your first Wimbledon final is usually a guarantee of future success, but try telling that to Nathalie Tauziat, MaliVai Washington or Chris Lewis. All three have been runners-up at the All England Club in the last 25 years, only to find that 15 minutes of fame was all they were allotted.
Marion Bartoli could be forgiven for wondering whether she will be in similar company one day. Eleven months ago the 23-year-old Frenchwoman was the sensation of Wimbledon, creating the biggest upset of the tennis year in the semi-finals by beating Justine Henin. She then lost to Venus Williams in the final.
Nothing has gone right since then and Bartoli's misery could even be complete by the time this year's championships begin, a week on Monday. A wrist problem is the latest in a series of injuries suffered by the world No 10 and, after losing her first match at the DFS Classic in Edgbaston this week, she admitted she would have an anxious wait to see if she is fit to play at Wimbledon.
"I never know how I will be when I go on court or how long it's going to be hurting," she said. "It seems like 2008 doesn't want me to be in great shape. I'm always having illness or injury."
At last year's Champions' Dinner Bartoli was accorded as much attention as Williams or Jelena Jankovic, the mixed doubles champion, but within a month she had been brought down to earth with a second-round defeat in her next tournament. Two semi-finals in minor indoor events were her best results in the rest of the year, which ended with a troublesome knee injury and a 6-0, 6-0 thrashing by Henin at the Sony Ericsson WTA Championships.
This year Bartoli has reached only one semi-final on the Sony Ericsson Tour and lost in the first round of the Australian and French Opens. For a player who has improved her end-of-season ranking every year in her career so far recent events have been hard to bear, particularly after "the best two weeks of my life" at Wimbledon last year.
"When you've experienced such a high you think it's going to be like that every single day," Bartoli said. "That's difficult, especially for someone like me. I'm such a perfectionist. When I don't play as well as I played at Wimbledon I find it so frustrating. It can make me feel so bad. I think: 'I just can't go on playing like this.'
"Even in practice it's difficult, though I know it's just not possible to play at the same high level every day. I don't want to put any pressure on myself. I don't tell myself: 'You got to the Wimbledon final so now you should be doing this or that in other tournaments.' I think people in France think that because I got to the Wimbledon final I should be winning everything. But it's just not possible. I'm still growing up and my tennis is still developing."
Few people thought of Bartoli as a Wimbledon contender last year, despite runs to the semi-finals at Edgbaston and Eastbourne, where she lost to Maria Sharapova and Henin respectively. A fourth-round victory at the All England Club over Jankovic, the world No 3, reinforced her self-belief, which she retained even when Henin won the first set of their semi-final 6-1. The match turned and Bartoli won 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.
In her post-match press conference Bartoli explained that the pendulum had swung after she spotted Pierce Brosnan, her favourite actor, in the crowd. She has since watched a DVD of the match and recognises the moment when she saw him.
"You can see when it was 1-1 in the second set, just after I'd broken her," she said. "I was about to serve and you can see I'm looking at someone in the crowd. Then I look at the ball in my hand and I look up again into the crowd to confirm who it is I've spotted. You can see the look on my face: 'Is that really him?'
"You can see the change in me from then onwards. I'd always loved James Bond, especially when Pierce Brosnan was playing the part. It was like he was my angel coming down to save me. That's what James Bond is all about: facing what looks like a desperate situation and achieving something unbelievable. I thought: 'That's what I'm going to do in this match.' I also thought I didn't want him to see me playing so badly. I thought: 'With him watching me, I've got to play my best. He'll enjoy the match if I can turn it around'."
The next day flowers and a note from Brosnan were waiting at the All England Club. "I'll always remember the look on the face of the locker-room attendant," Bartoli said. "She was as white as a sheet. The whole thing was like a dream." Does she still have the note Brosnan sent her? "Of course. He's so charming, so elegant, so British." Brosnan is, in fact, Irish.
Williams, who simply had too much power, won the final 6-4, 6-1, but Bartoli was determined to enjoy the champions' dinner at the Savoy. "I had a great night, though what the announcer said was rather embarrassing. I'd spoken to him at cocktails before the dinner. He saw me looking at the table plan to see if Pierce was there. Then when he announced me at the dinner he said: 'Marion is here because she thought Pierce Brosnan was coming. Unfortunately he's not here, but we're very glad that Marion is.' It was so embarrassing. I was tomato-red."
Bartoli's escort that night was her father, who is also her coach. Walter Bartoli gave up his job as a doctor to work full-time with her when she was 16. He is a self-taught coach and has guided his daughter's career outside the French tennis mainstream.
She knows some doubt his credentials. She said: "He started from nothing and has taken a player to be No 1 in France, top 10 in the world and the final of Wimbledon. You can't achieve those things without being a good coach. The point is that he's been a very good coach for me. Maybe if he coached someone else he wouldn't do the job with the same intensity and feeling.
"He knows me better than anyone and he's taken me to where I am from what wasn't a very strong base as a sportsperson. My mum isn't very strong physically and my father isn't either. A lot of the best sportspeople come from sporting backgrounds, but my family are doctors and lawyers."
Would Bartoli find it difficult to sack her coach? "I think it would be a joint decision. My dad has always wanted the best for me and I think that's our strength. We're a dad and daughter so we would be together whatever the situation, but if he felt that it would be in my best interests he would stop being my coach. I'm sure he would tell me before I came to that decision myself.
"He never puts any pressure on me. Before I played Justine in the semi-finals he told me two things. Firstly, he said: 'Try not to get injured by falling over or doing something stupid.' The second thing was: 'Don't lose 6-0, 6-0. Those are the only things I ask.' I just laughed. So when I won just one game I thought: 'OK, dad will be happy.'
"He didn't put any pressure on me. He wasn't saying, 'You have to win,' or 'You have to do this or you have to do that'. He's not like Maria Sharapova's dad. It's completely different."
What did her father tell her before the final? "He said: 'You're not too tired are you? Are you sure you'll be able to play?' He wanted to make sure that I enjoyed the occasion. He said he was very proud of me and it didn't matter what happened in the match.
"I was very pleased for him. I think everyone in France and everyone in tennis was probably thinking that he's a bad coach and that I would never be successful working with him. People thought that maybe I had talent but I wouldn't get to the top with him as my coach. I showed the world that I deserve to be there."
Bartoli grew up in a village near Le Puy in central France. She learnt to play on a court where there was barely room to swing a racket without hitting the rear wall, which explains how far forward she plays to this day.
Her competitive spirit was evident from an early age. "I don't cheat but I always wanted to win any game I played and if I'm losing I have to carry on until I win. I used to play Monopoly with my brother when I was five or six and we would sometimes have to play until one o'clock in the morning, or until I won. We played cards, badminton, ping-pong, everything you can think of. But I always wanted to win."
Today Bartoli lives with her parents in Switzerland, having moved there four years ago. She has never been back to the village where she grew up.
"My parents decided to leave and I was so happy. I couldn't stand it any more. I needed to go. It was too small and the people there really weren't nice towards me. They were so jealous. I wasn't comfortable. People were looking at me and saying: 'Look at how much money she's winning and she's only 18 or 19'."
If her career has taken a downward turn recently, Bartoli knows one aspect of her life can never change. "When people introduce me they often say: 'Marion Bartoli, the Wimbledon finalist.' It's something I'm really proud of. Whatever happens in the future that will always be the case."
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