She is an unlikely siren, displaying few of the conventional attributes demanded of leading ladies. Marion Bartoli is neither poster-girl pretty nor athletic in the romantic sense. But what an attraction she is proving to be in this inverted championship of lesser lights.
Her preparation for her semi-final included a nap in the locker room before going out to play. Since she charges about the court as if she has a bus to catch that does not surprise. “I felt a bit tired. I felt I needed it after practice and to be ready for my match. I woke up by myself at 12.30 and went to my warm-up at 12.40. If I need to I do it, but not all the time.”
The appearance of Bartoli and Kirsten Flipkens in a Wimbledon semi-final was not the showpiece anticipated. Neither has a profile to speak of, and had never met on a court. The progress of both to fill the space left by Serena and Maria put tennis back at the centre of the narrative.
We dug out what we could to personalise the story, discovering the deep vein thrombosis that threatened the career of Flipkens. And we dived into the Google trough to rediscover Bartoli’s comedy crush on actor Pierce Brosnan, first revealed after the defeat in the 2007 final against Venus Williams, and the fallout with her father and coach that resulted in a split earlier this year. But on the whole the participants were considered first as tennis players not as celebrities.
That was the refreshing bit. The bad bit strikes at the heart of the women’s game. How can a semi-final be so lightly contested at one end of the court and so aggressively at the other? Bartoli is a she warrior, charging about the court between points. In fact she worked harder between points than in winning them, running on the spot and throwing punches with her racket as if shadow boxing at Gleeson’s. The result was a 6-1, 6-2 mauling.
“I have been doing that for ever. I have tapes of me at seven doing exactly the same. It is a great way to focus on the point. It is not like I want to annoy my opponent or disturbing her but me being ready for the next point. It is about every moment on the court being able to give my best.”
The first set lasted 27 one-sided minutes, the crunching of a winners triggering the full fist-pumping display. There was subtlety, too, like the lobbed response that took Flipkens completely out of the point that claimed for Bartoli the first game of the second set.
It was impossible to feel anything but sorry for Flipkens. Any successes recorded evinced exaggerated cheers from a Centre Court audience trying desperately hard to lift her. So easy had it become for Bartoli the thought occurred that she might start a point with her back to Flipkens and still win it.
At 3-0 down in the second set Flipkens called for the trainer, who administered lengthy treatment to her heavily strapped right knee. Perhaps she performed some counselling service, too. Flipkens came straight out to break serve. Yes she gave the break straight back, but now at least there was fight.
Flipkens won her next service game to love. How different this match might have been had she abandoned the sliced approach and gone for the corners instead. Bartoli was not the immovable object she had been when forced to reach for the ball under pressure. The brief uplift in endeavour proved an irrelevance in the end. Ultimately Flipkens could not compete against an opponent who turns tennis into a frantic ordeal. Her pace and intensity is an example to any and the minimum requirement in professional sport. “I feel I deserve this. I believe in hard work. I have practiced hard every day even when things were not going well off court,” Bartoli said.
There was no argument from Flipkens, on or off the court. “Marion played an amazing match. I could no nothing. I tried my slices, and she got them. I tried my drop shots and she lobbed me. I tried my passes. I tried everything and it didn’t work out. I tried 500 per cent but she was just too good.”
So at 28, six years after her first Wimbledon final, Bartoli returns fully adjusted and ready to go. “The last time I was so young. I was the underdog every time. This time I was the highest ranked player in every match. I have dealt with the pressure really well, and played a great game today. I’m doing everything better, hitting the ball harder and moving faster than I was six years ago. If I played myself six years ago I would win quite easily I think.”