Marion Bartoli, who faces Kirsten Flipkens in the Wimbledon semi-finals this afternoon, has always defied convention. The 28-year-old Frenchwoman grew up outside the tennis mainstream, coached by her father Walter, a doctor who had no background in the sport but taught himself the basics and embarked on a mission to make his daughter one of the best players in the world.
Throughout her career Bartoli's game has been marked by bizarre routines, particularly as part of her preparation to serve as she jumps, skips, shuffles and twirls her racket. Walter has built home-made contraptions to help with her practice sessions, while her court positioning inside the baseline is a legacy of her days learning the game in the Haute-Loire region of France on a tiny court with almost no space at the back.
Bartoli's latest challenge to the norm has been to reach the last four of the world's most famous tournament nine months after her last semi-final anywhere and after illness and injury had cut a swathe through her Wimbledon preparations. "My body was cracking up all over the place," she said. "I felt my ankle was hurting me still at the French Open. I wasn't really able to be ready to play in Birmingham and then I got this bad virus at Eastbourne, but in the back of my head I was still thinking I could do well here. Every time I come back here, for some reason – I don't know why – I have a smile on my face. I felt great right away."
Bartoli reached her only Grand Slam final here six years ago – she lost to Venus Williams – creating one of the biggest shocks of modern times with her semi-final victory over Justine Henin after losing the first set. In true Bartoli fashion, the Frenchwoman said she had turned the match around against the world No 1 after seeing the actor Pierce Brosnan in the crowd and feeling that she could not play so badly in front of him.
Bartoli will again face a Belgian opponent as she attempts to reach this year's final, though Flipkens is no Henin. The 27-year-old was ranked No 175 in the world this week last year, when she played in a minor clay-court tournament in the Netherlands with a total prize pot of just $25,000 (about £16,400).
Earlier last year Flipkens had been diagnosed with blood clots in her calves and had her funding removed by her national association. Nevertheless, it proved a turning point as Kim Clijsters, another former world No 1 from Belgium, stepped into the breach and started to coach her part-time. Flipkens, who had only ever won three matches at Wimbledon before last week, is now up to No 20 in the world rankings and could climb as high as No 8 if she wins the title.
The other semi-final brings together two women who have become specialists on grass. Agnieszka Radwanska is a former Wimbledon junior champion – as is Flipkens – and reached the final here last year before losing to Serena Williams. Sabine Lisicki has reached two quarter-finals and two semi-finals in her last four appearances at the All England Club. Radwanska, the world No 4 and the lone top 10 player in the last four, is the only woman who has reached the quarter-finals or better of all three Grand Slam tournaments this year.
Whatever happens, a new Wimbledon champion will be crowned on Saturday, which will see only the third SW19 women's final since 1999 not to feature at least one of the Williams sisters. For the first time in the Open era at Wimbledon, all four semi-finalists are players seeking their first Grand Slam title. It will be an appropriate finale to one of the most unpredictable championships for years.