Pressure? What pressure? Sabine Lisicki and Marion Bartoli, Wimbledon’s improbable ladies’ finalists, yesterday giggled their way through their press conferences like a pair of schoolgirls. The duo, seeded 23 and 15 respectively and without a tournament win between them since 2011, were rank outsiders two weeks ago but in their contrasting ways have captivated the Wimbledon audience.
There is a suspicion that opponents are less enamoured by Lisicki’s emotional displays and Bartoli’s quirky hyperactivity, but their paring should make for a highly-watchable final this afternoon – as long as both players keep their nerve .
Bartoli ought to have the edge in that she has been here before, losing the 2007 final to Venus Williams. “Having the experience of being out there already will help,” the 28-year-old Frenchwoman said, “I am feeling less stressed than last time. It will help me deal with my nerves, but I still have to deal with her level of game.”
Indeed. Bartoli has not dropped a set all fortnight, but nor has she been much tested. She has faced only two players inside the top 50, and the highest-ranked player she met was 17th-seeded American Sloane Stephens.
Lisicki, however, has been through the fires. Every opponent has been top-50 ranked beginning with former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, and including 14th seed Sam Stosur en route to her dramatic come-from-behind victories over last season’s finalists Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska.
“It’s been a lot of fun, a great journey, and it hasn’t finished yet,” she said. “I’m looking forward to going out on Centre Court again.” Lisicki, 23, said she had spoken to compatriot Boris Becker about the final experience, adding, “he won his first final”.
Lisicki, like Becker, hits the ball hard: hard enough that she, too, was nicknamed ‘Boom-Boom’ when emerging in Germany. Bartoli also gives the ball a thwack – Lisicki described her opponent’s play as “aggressive” – but it is their mannerisms that have caught the attention as much as their strokes. Asked about her effervescent behaviour on court – her celebrations seemed to anger Radwanska on Thursday – Lisicki said: “That’s just myself. I enjoy myself out there. Why shouldn’t I show it? It helps me play my best. I think it is why the crowd like me. They are happy to see someone who loves what they are doing.”
Bartoli’s routine also has the potential to aggravate across the net as she turns her back, shadow swings, hops and skips ,then bounces around the court like the Duracell Bunny. Lisicki, who has played her four times in the past, said she was unfazed. “I’m not looking at it. I focus on myself.”
This may be true, but it was noticable this was one of the few times the bubbly blonde act was curtailed. Bartoli’s cheery demeanour also slipped at one point, when she was asked if she agreed she was “an unlikely finalist”. Clearly she did not.
Bartoli’s giggles came when she was asked about Pierce Brosnan, who she famously said inspired her back in her 2007 run to the final. “I knew that question was coming,” she said amid mirth. She revealed the latest Bond, Daniel Craig, did not get her pulse beating in quite the same way but if Ryan Gosling was in the area...
It has not all been laughs, though, for the Corsican. She admitted off-field difficulties had left her at “rock-bottom”. This is widely assumed to relate to her issues with her father, who taught her from an early age but has been replaced as coach this year.
Quoting Nietzsche, who appears to be in every athlete’s library, she said: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I had tough times privately, some low moments, which affected my mood. I hit rock bottom, but I kept my head up. I wanted to win matches again. That is what drove me to go out on court and practise. Now I am happy and everything is perfect again.”
Her father, Walter, has been absent this Wimbledon but has flown in for today’s final. A doctor, he quit his profession to coach his daughter, teaching himself along the way, even building a home-made ball-deliverer so she could practise alone.
There are elements of this story Lisicki will recognise. She was also introduced to tennis by her father, another doctor, though academic rather than medical, who has also coached her. Like Bartoli, who was financed by her grandfather, Lisicki’s career owes much to family support with her parents driving across Europe to tournament after tournament.
“My parents did everything possible to let me play tennis,” she said. “My dad worked from eight in the morning to nine in the evening to make it possible. Sometimes we had to cancel tournaments because we couldn’t afford to go there. It has been a big challenge to get to this point.”
Lisicki’s progress was interrupted by a hay-fever related allergy to grass. “I know, it is ironic,” she said laughing, “but now I have medication and I love grass.”
The pair have met twice on the surface, Bartoli beating Lisicki here in 2008 but losing a 2011 quarter-final to the German. Lisicki won their other two meetings, on clay in Charleston, and starts as slight favourite despite her lower seeding.
“We both hit the ball pretty hard and pretty flat, from the baseline” said Bartoli. “Sabine serves faster than me, I take the ball a bit earlier. We are very close in terms of level. In a Grand Slam it is always about small details – a point here, a point there, maybe someone is a bit more gutsy. It is a battle of nerves, who is able to come up with their best on the day.”
Countrywomen: German and French finalists
PAST FRENCH FINALISTS
One of the game’s greats, Lenglen was unbeaten at Wimbledon, winning six of the first seven titles after the First World War before turning professional after a dispute with tournament organisers.
Didier Deschamps’ cousin was a surprise finalist in 1998, the 16th-seed losing to Jana Novotna. She has been a mentor to Bartoli.
The current French Federation captain, who celebrated her 34th birthday yesterday, was No 1 in the world when she beat Justine Henin in 2006.
Venus Williams denied the French back-to-back winners when she defeated today’s finalist in straight sets in 2007.
PAST GERMAN FINALISTS
There were no German finalists at Wimbledon for the first 47 years, then two came along at once, Aussem taking advantage of the absence of Helen Wills-Moody to defeat compatriot Hilde Krahwinkel 6-2, 7-5 in 1931.
Hilde Sperling, nee Krahwinkel
After her 1931 Wimbledon defeat, Krabhwinkel, now named Sperling after marriage, won a trio of French Opens and reached a second Wimbledon final in 1936 only to be beaten again.
Vies with Lenglen and Serena Williams as the greatest female player. Became the Queen of SW19 in the 1990s winning seven titles in nine years between 1988 and 1996 and reaching finals either side of that run.