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Steve Flink: Bartoli translates dedication into victory

7/6/2013 4:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—Six years ago, back in the summer of 2007, before she was ready for such an auspicious occasion, when she was far less polished as a player than she is now, Marion Bartoli was soundly beaten in the final of the world’s premier tennis tournament by a woman who knew her way around the Centre Court as well as anyone. Venus Williams took apart Bartoli with consummate ease that afternoon, recording a 6-4, 6-1 victory for her fourth and penultimate singles title at the All England Club. Bartoli found the world’s most renowned tennis arena to be a very uncomfortable place that afternoon as she appeared in her first final at a major tournament. She was lost in the grandiosity of the sport’s shrine. That was understandable.

In the final today on the same court, the 28-year-old Frenchwoman was prepared, eager and finely tuned. She knew how badly she wanted to capture the crown, and turned that quest into a driving obsession that worked in her favor. Bartoli carried herself like a woman who liked her chances. She showed up for another day at work, knowing full well that this was the single most important day of her tennis career, recognizing that she had a monumental opportunity to make history and realize a lifelong dream. Meanwhile, Sabine Lisicki—the woman who had turned the event upside down when she toppled Serena Williams in the round of 16—was unmistakably stricken with a bout of nerves from which she would not recover. The 23-year-old German had spoken with unrestrained optimism coming into the match, wanting to believe she could handle the daunting moment, trying to convey a sense of inner calm about her first final at a Grand Slam event.

But she was anything but composed as she took on an adversary who is an unrelenting competitor. Bartoli crushed Lisicki 6-1, 6-4 for the title, and thus completed an impressive seven match streak at Wimbledon when she did not concede a set. Only five other players (Martina Navratilova four times, Serena Williams twice, Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Chris Evert) have realized that considerable feat. Moreover, Bartoli established herself as the first woman in the Open Era to rule at Wimbledon with two-fisted shots off both sides. Not even the redoubtable Monica Seles of double-handed fame managed to prevail here despite securing all of the other majors at least twice.

The historical milestones don’t stop there. Bartoli is only the seventh French woman to win a Grand Slam championship. She is just the third female from her nation to be the victor on the hallowed lawns at Wimbledon, joining the illustrious Suzanne Lenglen and the gifted Amelie Mauresmo in that category. She is only the second French woman to garner a first major title on the British grass, equaling Lenglen there. Plainly, Bartoli has joined some elite company. Even if she never wins another major—and that is entirely possible—Bartoli has turned this fortnight into a capstone for her career, and has irrevocably altered her place as a tennis player in the larger order of things. Meanwhile, one more fact must not be ignored: this was Bartoli’s 47th career Grand Slam event. She set an Open Era record by taking her first major after so long; Jana Novotna held the previous record at 45.

This final pitted the No. 15 seed Bartoli against No. 23 Lisicki. It was the first time in the Open Era that a French player has confronted a German in the final round of a major in either the men’s or women’s divisions. At the outset, it seemed briefly as though Bartoli might be even more apprehensive than her opponent. From deuce in the opening game of the contest, she served consecutive double faults, the first at 100 MPH into the net, the next off the net cord and wide. Lisicki had the cushion of an immediate break, but she could not exploit it. From 15-15 in the second game, Bartoli produced a pair of deep returns to provoke mistakes from Lisicki. The German aced Bartoli out wide in the deuce court to climb back to 30-40, but then she double faulted into the net. It was 1-1.

Bartoli seemed to instantly relax. She began imposing herself regularly off the ground, driving the ball deep off both sides, keeping Lisicki off balance and on her heels, taking control from the back of the court. Bartoli released a timely second serve ace at 40-30 in the third game, moving ahead 2-1. Lisicki missed four of six first serves in the fourth game, and was broken at 30 when Bartoli drove a flat backhand return with interest that was too hot for Lisicki to handle. The Frenchwoman had advanced to 3-1, and she wasn’t looking back. Bartoli made all four first serves in the following game, and held at love for 4-1. She had thoroughly found her range and her play from the baseline was first rate. So, too, were her searing returns.

And yet, Lisicki was way out of sorts, missing wildly off the ground, not thinking clearly, performing abysmally. The German made it to 40-15 at 1-4, only to miss off the forehand on the next two points. This game was critical if Lisicki was going to find a way to stay in the set. She saved a break point with an ace down the T, had a third game point but missed a backhand passing shot, and then had a fourth that Bartoli took away with an unstoppable return. Then Lisicki double faulted, and the Frenchwoman marched to 5-1 when Lisicki sent a forehand down the line long off another telling return. Bartoli went three for four on first serves in the seventh game, holding at love to sweep her sixth game in a row, sealing the set in precisely 30 minutes.

The Centre Court audience longed for a revival from Lisicki, who had twice made stunning recoveries during her dazzling run to the final. Against Williams, she won the first set but dropped nine consecutive games to fall behind 0-3 in the final set, and then she trailed 2-4 as well before capturing four games in a row to oust the top seed. Facing No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals, Lisicki was in a similar predicament. After taking the first set of that encounter, Lisicki fell into another bad spell, dropping the second set 6-2, falling behind 0-3 in the third. But she rallied gamely again to secure victory 6-4, 2-6, 9-7.

Surely, Lisicki wanted to draw on those resurrections as the second set started against Bartoli, but the Frenchwoman was in no mood to cede any ground or suffer any lapses. Lisicki commenced the second set with an ace down the T at 113 MPH, and held commandingly at 15 for 1-0. In the second game, the German had no fewer than four break points, but did not convert. Lisicki made a forehand unforced error on the first break point. Bartoli rushed the German into a mistake on the second, and then wiped away the third with a terrific backhand swing volley that was unanswerable. On the fourth and last chance for Lisicki, Bartoli opened up the court with a crosscourt forehand and drove a backhand into the clear. A determined Bartoli held on for 1-1.

Clearly, Lisicki was distressed by her inability to fashion an early break and perhaps gain some momentum. Bartoli played two spectacular points for 0-30 in the third game. Lisicki double faulted to make it 0-40, served an ace for 15-40, but was then broken by the Frenchwoman, who scampered forward to retrieve a drop shot and ultimately won the point with a winning volley into an open court. Bartoli was surging, holding at 30 for 3-1. Lisicki realized she was in a desperate plight. She had three game points in the fifth game, fended off a break point, but then was broken when Bartoli found some more daylight with a penetrating return that drew a forehand error from the German.

It was 4-1 and the Frenchwoman was two breaks up. She was playing her brand of tennis, dictating from the baseline, making flat and often devastating returns, controlling the agenda almost entirely while Lisicki remained in a state of bewilderment. Bartoli held at love for 5-1, and moved swiftly to 15-40, double match point in the seventh game. Lisicki’s pride and professionalism surfaced here. She swung a first serve wide with slice in the deuce court, recognized that Bartoli’s down the line return was weak, and closed in for a backhand volley winner. At 30-40, she sent another first serve down the T and Bartoli could not control her return at full stretch. Bartoli soon had a third match point, but Lisicki erased that one when Bartoli’s crosscourt backhand found the net tape.

Lisicki produced a service winner, and then an ace out wide at 114 MPH. She had closed the gap to 5-2, and that stand gave her a dose of encouragement to carry on. Bartoli was momentarily shaken, double faulting to go behind 15-30 at 5-2. She rallied for 30-30 but Lisicki’s return of serve was too much for Bartoli. At break point down, Bartoli sent a running forehand down the line long. Lisicki had found her game at last, but it was very late in the contest. She played one of her finest service games, holding at 15 for 4-5 with back to back forehand winners up the line. Lisicki had taken three games in a row.

Bartoli served for the match a second time. She had been on the verge of winning 6-1, 6-1, but now the battle had tightened and the Centre Court audience was hoping Lisicki could somehow carry the match into a third set. But Bartoli displayed considerable poise and tenacity at this juncture. The first point of that game was crucial, and it featured an absorbing rally. Bartoli won it by angling a forehand acutely crosscourt to draw a forehand long from Lisicki. The Frenchwoman followed with a service winner to the backhand, and then drilled a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner. At 40-0, she concluded the battle in style, acing Lisicki wide to the backhand at 101 MPH to finish off a job exceedingly well done. To be sure, Lisicki had been diminished significantly by the occasion, but a sprightly Bartoli had stepped up ably and performed remarkably well.

The statistics tell a large part of the story. Lisicki—paralyzed by nerves—made 25 unforced errors across two sets, eleven more than Bartoli. Bartoli won 79% of her first serve points while Lisicki made good on only 52%. Bartoli won only 37% of her second serve points, but Lisicki was only marginally better at 39%. Quite simply, Bartoli outplayed Lisicki across the board, and even out-served an opponent who needed to shine in that facet of the game to have any chance to succeed. In the end, Bartoli’s experience playing big matches was a feather in her cap. Not only did she reach the final here in 2007, but Bartoli also has been a semifinalist at Roland Garros, and a quarterfinalist at the Australian and U.S. Opens. To be sure, Lisicki had a stellar Wimbledon record, including a semifinal appearance two years ago and two other quarterfinal showings. But that could not measure up to Bartoli’s wider range of experience and her deeper maturity as a match player.

As she said in her post-match press conference when asked to explain how important it was to have played in a Wimbledon final before, “Of course I can say it really helped me being out there before. But I really felt I was playing my best match of the championship. I was doing everything well. I was moving well, I was returning well. I mean, I really played a wonderful match. It’s amazing to win Wimbledon.”

Remarkably, Bartoli had not made it beyond the quarterfinals of any tournament she had played in 2013. The simple truth is she got hot at the right time, and took full advantage of an unusually kind draw. The highest seeded player she met all fortnight was Sloane Stephens (No. 17) in the quarterfinals. But the fact remains that she did all that could have been asked of her, and everything she could have demanded from herself. She won the major of all majors, and did so in style.

Asked what she might be able to accomplish from this point forward in her career, Bartoli responded, “I have absolutely no idea, but one [Grand Slam title] is pretty good for me. [Being]Wimbledon champ, even if I don’t get another one, I will still be very proud of it. But, of course, I am going to try my hardest to get some more. Now that I get one, I definitely believe I can get more of them. I just want to enjoy this one because I haven’t still realized I’m really the Wimbledon champion of 2013. It will take me some few days to realize it. Actually, when I do, I will maybe think about the U.S. Open and getting a shot over there.”

Bartoli fully deserved her success on the lawns, played excellent tennis, and realized her largest dream. But Serena Williams will inevitably come back strong over the summer on the hard courts and she will be the big favorite at the U.S. Open. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova both departed in the second round of Wimbledon, but they will surely be around for the latter stages of many more majors. Marion Bartoli will be hard pressed to replicate her exploits at Wimbledon. But it really doesn’t matter. She got on board at a major, and it doesn’t get any better than that

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.