5/15/2012 2:00:00 PM
Marion Bartoli has always been very much her own person. Well, at least her parents' daughter.
She is one of only two top 10 players who still travels with her father to every tournament (Caroline Wozniacki being the other). That man is her father Walter, whom she is extremely close to and who has been coaching her since she first learned how to play on a short court in her hometown of Le Pay en Velay.
Bartoli is now 27 years old and there are not that many pro athletes of that age who feel like they cannot perform their best unless their parent is around. Not for a month, not for a week, not for a day.
But that is how Marion feels and that's why unless the French Tennis Federation has major change of heart, she will not be representing her country in the 2012 London Olympics.
It's a simple equation: the FFT does not allow private coaches during Fed Cup weeks. Their captain and coaches are the ones who work with the players. Marion has refused to play for France under those conditions and has only played one tie in her entire career in 2004.
Under current rules, a player must maker herself available for Fed Cup for two ties during the two years prior to the Games. Marion has not made herself available under those circuemstances. The FFT has said it will not change its team rules just to suit one player. Neither side will budge so she's not going back to London after Wimbledon, which is too bad because this year's Olympics will also be played on grass at the All England Club, and she’s an excellent grass court player, having reached the Wimbledon final in 2007.
She's very stubborn, so it's likely we will see her playing US summer hard court events while the other top 10 players are searching for splendor on the grass.
"I have a good chance to play the Olympics-- in my garden," she told TennisChannel.com from Rome. "If I put up a net in my grass garden I think I can compete there. For the real Olympics it's not looking good, it's hopeless. I have tried to explain to them a million times and they come out with the same answer. It's like speaking to a wall and there's nothing I can do."
What she could have done is said to herself yes, I can go play up to six matches in two years without my dad watching me. It would not have seriously damaged her game. She could have said, OK, I'll go, but don’t expect me to take coaching instruction. Leave me to my own devices.
But she did not and the team has really suffered. She is by far France's best player and since two-time Grand Slam champ Amelie Mauresmo retired in 2009, the squad has been left wanting, as captain Nicolas Escude has had to trot out a slew of players ranked out of the top 50. France is currently stuck in the World Group II.
Bartoli is one of the most open and honest players on tour. She is smart and artistic. She is willful and convicted. She is sweet yet she is combative and at times she can be her own worst enemy.
"I feel I don't have to change my mind because what I'm asking is not impossible," she said. "Every other country does what I am asking to do, and their federations give [permission] to their players. I don’t see the point of why I should change my mind. They have been putting me down for 15 years and it's just a continuation of it."
In full disclosure, I have written and broadcasted for Roland Garros.com since 1997, which means that the FFT annually cuts me a check. So when I say that I agree with the FFT 's stance and not Bartoli's, some might think I am showing a bias toward an employer. But I have been saying for years that I agree with the ITF"s stance that players who say they want to represent their nation in the Olympics should show that they are truly sincere by playing Fed Cup. Asking players to represent their nation in an exciting and critical competition to tennis' overall health is not that big of a demand. And if the member nations like France don’t want to allow private coaching, then that's their call.
Bartoli is mislead if she thinks every other nation allows private coaching. The United States does not and in fact, in 2002, the issue caused one of the biggest controversies in US Fed Cup history when then captain Billie Jean King kicked Jennifer Capriati off the team because she would not tell her dad and coach Stefano to go away. As a result, the US took a shocking loss to Austria at home.
To me, the willingness of the FFT to stand by it principles and not bend to one specific player is something that Bartoli might admire, because she is much the same way - a woman who sticks to her guns.
But she is infuriated and says she is biding her time until the Olympics end in mid-August. Then, there will be no soft criticism.
"The Olympics is last thing the [FFT] has and they can play their cards into the Olympics, but after that it's going to be hard on them because then it's my turn to criticize them," she said. "For 15 years I have not been saying anything, but after the Olympics it’s going to be the start of a really big war, trust me."
I trust her, because she has never been shy about speaking her mind publicly.
Imagine this: it's conceivable that without No. 7 ranked Bartoli on the team that France -- which has been a key participant in tennis history -- will have no singles players in the Olymoic women's draw.
Pauline Parmientier is France's second highest ranked player at No. 65, and as of this week the cut off for the main draw (excluding wild cards) is around No. 61. Rather than give a wild card to a player from a small, struggling nation, the ITF might have to give one to a player from mighty France in order to save face.
"They are living in their own world and they need to open their own eyes about what other countries think of them," Bartoli said. "I really hope Pauline will make it, and it will be unfortunate if she can't, then France doesn’t look good."
I'm not sure that by virtue of her intransience that Bartoli is going to look very good either, but it’s hard to gauge international opinion until the event actually happens.
For now, she must focus on Rome this week and Roland Garros in two weeks time. The crazy thing about this controversy is that last year in Paris was the first time that she was fully embraced by the French crowds when she came into the tournament with an injury and won one spectacular three setter after another on center court and reached her first semifinal. The woman who has chosen to live in Switzerland won her nation over with her mental toughness in the face of physical pain.
This year, she is hoping to do much the same, to be the French belle of the Roland Garros ball, even though she knows there will be no white carriage set to take her way to the Olympics a month and a half later, regardless of how well she performs.
"I was living a dream and everything was going my way," she recalled. "I was full of joy to be on court and to fight and the crowds cheering for me. Whatever I do at this Roland Garros, I will always be able to walk away from my career with those great memories."