Wimbledon: Marion Bartoli and the Road Less Traveled

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Marion Bartoli holds the Venus Rosewater Dish after defeating Sabine Lisicki 6-1, 6-4 to win the 2013 Wimbledon Ladies' Singles Championship. Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images.

By Bill Simons

NO LONGER A COG IN THE WHEEL—A CELEBRATION OF THE WILD, WONDERFUL, AND QUIRKY

We like it when the garbage man comes by every Wednesday to get rid of our soon-to-be smelly trash.
The boss expects us to be on time every day: 8:30 sharp, thank you very much.
Order is good. Form matters. Constancy gives us confidence. Deadlines rule. “Place all your laptops in their own container,” says the humorless man who keeps us safe.
And for about 500 years—well it seems that long—we have relished grand and gracious (if sometimes rather predictable) weekends of Grand Slam tournaments with a cast of astounding women and a handful of wonderful gents. Breakfast with Sharapova and Serena, Roger and Rafa.
But not this year, and not at this Wimbledon.
Must be the season of the witch! Welcome to Wimbledon 2013—a celebration of everything that is odd, unconventional, and more then quirky. Strange fruit, a minor key.
The game’s leading ladies had a cat fight. Towering giants fell to their knees. A cadre of fresh, un-scrubbed American girls reached for the heights, while our American men provided the most discouraging disappearing act since before the Woodrow Wilson regime. Little-known Belgians banged loud. Poles—patient or impatient, petite or powerful—persisted and shone bright. All the while, a billion dollars’ worth of shining stars—that would be “Rog” Federer; diva Serena; Ms. Sharapova, the Sugarpova lady herself; the belle of Belarus, Azarenka; and a muscular Mallorcan named Rafa—all faded, fast and furious.
The middle should hold. The mighty should prevail. The weak shall be swept aside. Nowhere in tennis is this better-known than at this tournament on an island nation that so worships propriety, place, and manners one moment, but then indulges in the occasional odd bit the next, almost as if to provide some relief from the crushing weight of  all those Victorian expectations that insist matters in the public square should have a tidy outcome and individuals should certainly know their place.
This year’s Wimbledon hollered loud, the message clear: I refuse to be a cog in your wheel.
Then again, let’s be real. Monday morning is already on the horizon. There will come a time, like always, when we must shower, catch the bus, and make a buck. The roads will jam, the stock market will open. Form will be renewed.
So good friend, if you predicted a Marion Bartoli vs. Sabine Lisicki final, just let me know and I’ll hand over my (far too modest) stock portfolio and you can run the damn thing.

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THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: MARION BARTOLI’S JOURNEY BEYOND PERFECTION

Marion Bartoli is quirky.

Bartoli says she has an IQ of 171. Some call her “the genius.” She trained as a child in the snow using bizarre techniques. “Papa, make me a champion,” she pleaded with her dad Walter.
But her forehand was weak, so he modeled her game on Monica Seles, who played two-handed off both sides. Her little French town, Le Puy-en-Velay, would turn on her father. But her father would turn his daughter into a Wimbledon Champion. And it is only appropriate that the most bizarre Wimbledon ever was won by the most unusual, nearly bizarre, player of our era.
Rather enchanting, yes?
It wasn’t just her short backstroke, her not-that-svelte body type, and all those shadow swings, those hops and bops. After all, Bartoli is a woman who openly calls herself a cat lady. She concedes that she loves to sleep and she once nodded off during a US Open match against Sharapova. Plus, she loves to paint and wishes she could chat up her favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh, that fierce fellow who cut off his ear.
Clearly, Bartoli has cut her own path in tennis, and even more than Jimmy Connors, she has been “the outsider,” with a certain solitary quality about her.
There were countless feuds with the French Federation. She didn’t play the Olympics, or many a Fed Cup tie. Controversy always seemed to lurk nearby. She even kicked her beloved dad out of the crowd during one match.

At Wimbledon, after navigating her way through the fortnight and sweeping aside an underwhelming list of late-stage foes (Karin Knapp, Sloane Stephens, and the overachieving Belgian Kirsten Flipkens), Bartoli had to score just one more victory to capture her first tourney since 2011; to become the first woman to take The Championships without playing a foe seeded in the top ten; and to become the woman who’d played the most Grand Slams before winning one.
But, Sabine Lisicki, a hard-serving German, came in as the favorite. For starters, she has a thing for spoiling French parties. In four of the last five Wimbledons, she rained on the parades of the defending French Open champion, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova, Li Na, Maria Sharapova, and, this year, Serena. Why then, wouldn’t she dismiss France’s best player? After all, she seemed to be in a zone and had a winning record over Bartoli.
Just 23 and having overcome serious injuries, Lisicki had been enduring an indifferent year and was only seeded No. 24. But she loves Wimbledon, and she was often beaming, a kind of love child, as she overcame three Slam champions (Francesca Schiavone, Sam Stosur, and Serena) and two other formidable players—the streaky Elena Vesnina and last year’s finalist, Agnieszka Radwanska—on her way to the final. Against Serena and also Radwanska, she battled back from an 0-3 deficit in the final set.
Not surprisingly, her almost heroic trek took its toll. “The matches,” Lisicki told IT, “are different when you play against the top players. They’re heavier. They’re longer. You have more draining rallies. Mentally and physically, I just felt I wasn’t at 100% [in the final].”
So did the Centre Court crowd of 16,000, watching on a warm, sunny afternoon that had gloomy qualities for Germany’s No. 2 player. Lisicki did begin by breaking with ease in the first game. But then she went away. Out of rhythm and overwhelmed by the occasion, she remained at a loss as her serve faltered and her groundstrokes frequently wandered into the alleys or met the net. She seemed hesitant—her returns skied, and her movement was sluggish. Today, we would see virtually none of the inspired joy which had marked Lisicki’s once-sublime run.
Instead we saw Bartoli: fearsome, focused, and fine. Bashing the ball early, bending low, leaning in and blasting backhand cross-court winners, she played her unique brand of double-fisted ball—clean, efficient, offensive. There were nifty volleys, and points scored off of swift scrambles. Yes, there were also some bop ‘n trots, some shadow boxing and air swings, and a few other staccato tics that define the Bartoli brand.

But the tics are just the sideshow. The main show was Bartoli winning six straight games to capture the first set, 6-1. Then, barely taking a breath, she scored more breaks of serve and stretched her lead to 6-1, 5-1. “Lisicki,” said broadcaster Rupert Bell, perhaps exaggerating slightly, “is the loneliest tennis player in the world … This is a sporting tragedy unfolding here.” Then, bravely and gallantly, Lisicki, with nothing to lose, at last dramatically counterattacked. She saved three championship points and finally began playing with freedom, racing back to trail just 5-4.
But it was too late. Armed with new balls, Bartoli took her curious tennis journey to a new dimension. She had served tens of thousands of serves with her much-criticized hitch-and-blast motion. But none were like the 101 mph ace that brought the most unconventional player in the game the winner’s trophy at the most conventional venue in major sports.
Later, the 28-year old recalled the moment, saying, “Sabine started to play very well and come back … I just really thought I had to hold my serve one more time.
But just to finish on an ace to win Wimbledon and [see] the chalk come off of the line.  … I could have seen it in slow motion. I could see the ball landing, the chalk come out, it’s an ace, and I just win Wimbledon. You can’t describe that kind of feeling. You cannot put [into] any words what I feel in this moment … I can’t realize I’m a Wimbledon champion. It’s just so overwhelming.”
Of course, all the while, Bartoli did it her way, against the grain. She told IT, “I actually love that part of my game, being able to have something different … When the spectators were looking at 10 matches, they will remember this girl that was doing something different, playing inside the court or whatever … I never felt like I wanted to be like all the other kids and do exactly the same everyone was doing … For a tennis player, you start to play like at five or six. When you decide to turn pro, your dream is to win a Grand Slam. You dream about it every single day. You think about it every single day.
So when it actually happens, you feel like you achieve something that you dream about for maybe a million hours. You went through pain, you went through tears, you went through low moments, and actually it happened … I’m a very tough person. I played the whole second set with probably a 25 cents [quarter-sized] blister under my big toe. I didn’t call for the trainer, and when I took my sock off, the sock was red of blood … I could barely walk at the end … But I haven’t shown anything. I’m this kind of person. I can focus and be really as strong as wood. You cannot see what I’m going through.
It’s coming from my childhood, from where I practice when I was younger, from those very tough situations. I needed to handle going to school, normally practicing at 10 p.m., finishing at midnight, going back to school the next day. Those kind of hard moments make me extremely strong … Every time I’m stepping on a court I remember those very hard moments. I could remember it today … and that carried me on a long way.”
When it was finally over, Marion recalled, “those five, ten seconds before you shake the hands of your opponent, you feel like you’re almost not walking anymore on earth. You’re really flying … [and] to share this moment with my dad … That was the perfect day. It was sunny. It was beautiful. Centre Court Wimbledon, it was packed. I won in two sets. I didn’t drop a set for the whole Championships. Even in my perfect dream I couldn’t have dreamed a perfect moment like that. That is beyond perfection.”

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WHY THE BRYANS HAVE SURVIVED ALL THESE YEARS

The Bryan brothers survived a scare to beat Croatian Ivan Dodig and Brazilian Marcelo Melo 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to win Wimbledon and become the first team to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time in the Open era. Plus, with their Olympic gold medals, the boys can now claim the Bryan Golden Slam.
We should just celebrate their triumph. But a few days ago, on this website, we celebrated their singular career. Today, deep into the post-match press conference, IT asked the Bryans to tell us some of their best Wimbledon tales. Not surprisingly, the ever-cooperative boys opened up about some memorable battles of the past.
Mike confided, “[At] our first Wimbledon, we made the round of 16. We played a three-day match against Alex O’Brien and Sebastien Lareau. We were chest-bumping. We were young. Showing no respect for the older guys.
There were about 20 rain delays where we came back to the locker room. We were sitting right next to them. There were words said. They wanted to kill us, basically.

Inside Tennis:  What did they say?
Mike Bryan:  “Cocky punks.”
Bob Bryan: “Punks. [We’re] going to kill you.” It was just the veterans giving the younger guys some heat. We deserved it. We were bouncing around and doing our thing. We were only 20 …
Those rain delays, it just made for really heated moments in a small locker room over at the old Court 2 … [it] just kept going … and [we were] hearing OB [O’Brien] give us shit”

Then the Brothers told the tale of their own storied fight in 2006:

MB: It was weird, because we won the match. Usually, you’re really happy after winning the match.
We were in the car. I said, “You should have served a little better, Bob.” He took it personal and said something about my forehand. Then I said something. It just got worse and worse.
I just said, “I hate you,” or something. Then he just gives me a little hit there, then I go there, and it just erupts into a full-blown brawl.
BB: We got our bags and you mule-kicked me in the stomach.
MB: We’re walking up the stairs to our house and Bob is behind me. I give him one of these mule kicks and kick him up the stairs.
BB:  I ran up the stairs and then he slammed the bathroom door right in my face and locked it. I tried to kick it down but I couldn’t get through. I saw his shiny guitar. I picked it up and just splintered it. That felt good, and that was the end of it.
MB: Then I hear everything is quiet. I go downstairs and he’s eating. I pull up a chair and start eating dinner.

So now you know why the “through thick and thin” brothers have lasted so long and are the best doubles team in history.

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A WONDERFUL WIMBLEDON GIRLS’ FINALIST: TAYLOR TOWNSEND SENDS A MESSAGE—”I’M A COMIN'”

How about this, tennis fans?
Taylor Townsend is young, just 17. She’s a lefty. Believe it or not, she serves and volleys. She’s upbeat and African American and proud of her heritage.
She has an energetic personality, without being a vapid phony. She already has a certain depth and offers glimpses of a gravitas which certainly will develop. Okay, with her Serena-like body, you would not describe her as trim. But here’s one description that works: future champion.
She’s Taylor Townsend: a big girl with a big future, who has scored big victories on big courts. Sure, when she turned pro earlier this year, she struggled in the big leagues. Rookies often take it on the chin. So she went back and played the juniors, where she has excelled. She had already won the girls’ Aussie Open in 2012 (defeating rising pro Yulia Putintseva), as well as the US Open doubles, at one point reaching No. 1 in the ITF rankings.
She was back on track.
At the French Open, Townsend lost a tight match in the quarters to a talented Swiss phenom, Belinda Bencic, who beat her again in the Wimbledon warmup at Roehampton. But Townsend battled through to the Wimbledon Girls’ singles final, played on the All England Club’s imposing Court 1. And on this toasty day,  most of the stadium’s 11,400 seats were filled to see Townsend again take on Bencic, who was on a 34-match winning streak. Streak be damned, Townsend blasted forehands and came to net to score volley winners against Bencic, racing to a 5-1 lead.
But Bencic, 16, is good, smooth, and accomplished. The Swiss kid, who is coached by her dad and Martina Hingis’ mom, stormed back to beat Townsend 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. A tough loss, yes. And there is much work to be done. But for Townsend to reach a Wimbledon final is rather wonderful. We’ll be hearing more from her.

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