What I Learned From the Year of Marion Bartoli

I realize that it’s a little bit late for 2013 reviews. Trust me. I get it. The Australian Open begins today. But I have had a very busy past couple of months (I know, I know, no excuses) and I haven’t gotten to reflect much on what the 2013 tennis season meant to me. And, really, that’s a shame, because personal reflection is one of my favorite things about sports.

I think that the things we remember about points or matches or tournaments or seasons say so much about who we are as a person. Do you remember the fabulous shots or the unfortunate ones first? Does your heart swell more for the winner than it breaks for the loser? Are you able to separate the technical side of the sport from the emotional, the narrative from the reality, the forced from the unforced? Or does it all just blurs together in your mind?

At times I’m a little bit of “all of the above,” but if you’ve followed my writing at all, you probably know that I’m more drawn to the flawed, the errors, and the emotional.

Sports, to me, is a natural extension of my love for storytelling that once took me to film school.
And, in life and in entertainment, I’m drawn to the side-kick. The anti-hero. The down-on-the-luck guy who has one or two scenes and we don’t know much about, but he seems like he has the potential to be the guy that saves the day at the end of the story. (It’s important to note that he could also be the killer. Yeah, he’s usually the killer.)

But when I reflect on 2013, I actually for once don’t think that much about the losers or the anguish. I also don’t immediately think about Rafael Nadal’s comeback or Novak Djokovic’s finish or Serena Williams’ greatness. Even Andy Murray’s triumph, Roger Federer’s humanity, and Victoria Azarenka’s grit don’t come to mind right away.

Instead, for me, the stand-out story of 2013, the one that will stick with me for years to come, was the story of Marion Bartoli.

Last year, Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon. I’m going to repeat that, because I still don’t think it’s sunk in for any of us. Marion Bartoli, she of the shadow-serves and tension chords, she of the messy ponytails and hand-me-down kits, won Wimbledon. Like, THE Wimbledon. And she did it without dropping a set.

And then, just weeks later, in front of a nearly-empty press room after an early-round loss in Cincinnati, at about 11:00 P.M. at night, she said that she was done.

To this day, I’m still not sure which act was more surprising, but I do know that both acts made more of an impact on me than all 11 of Serena’s titles combined. (And, though it sounds like it I know, that was not meant as a slight to Serena.) I mean, in the span of just a few months, she changed the course of her career, seized the moment of her dreams, and then retired from the sport she’d dedicated her life to. It all happened so quickly that I believe it deserves a bit more reflection, because, really, all of her actions taught me so much.

From Bartoli, I learned the importance of staying true to oneself. Throughout Bartoli’s career, the primary discussion around her was about how she was, well, a bit different than the rest. She never could stay still on the court, bouncing around between points, fidgeting during changeovers, and moving forward as her opponent set to serve. Her training methods were always snottily hailed as “unconventional,” as she attached tennis balls to her shoes and attached herself to fences with giant rubber bands. And her elaborate service motion and double-handed forehand were seen merely as quirks that needed to be corrected. But, with the help of her father, she stuck to the methods that worked for her, and refused to ever apologize for them. They ended up being the training routine of a Wimbledon Champion.

From Bartoli, I learned about the importance of self improvement. While she was strong enough to stick with all of the above methods because she felt they were the right things to do, she also proved that she wasn’t too afraid to make changes when she felt they were necessary. After a long and often-controversial coaching relationship with her father, she finally decided to break out on her own early last year. She then paired up with Jana Novotna, but that only lasted one week. Finally, she killed two birds with one stone by teaming up with Amelie Mauresmo and making peace with the French Fed Cup team. She also added the much-beleaguered hitting partner Thomas Drouet to her team, and they fast became close. A perennial outsider who only had her father in her box, Bartoli suddenly had a flock of friends by her side at all times. To make such drastic changes so late in her career must have taken incredible guts, but the moves certainly paid off.

From Bartoli, I learned about self love. I’ve written about this before, but I’m totally okay repeating myself in this case. Bartoli’s response to the sexism and cruelty surrounding her Wimbledon win, especially the loathsome John Inverdale’s comments, was perfect. To briefly recap, Inverdale, commentating live on the BBC, wondered if Bartoli became a competitor because she had no other choice since she wasn’t a “looker.” (Honestly, I’m not going to give him the respect to look up the exact quote, but that’s the idea.)

Asked about the comment in her post-victory press conference, Bartoli was not phased or disheartened. Instead, she was dismissive and self-assured.

It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.

Absolutely. Yes.

From Bartoli, I learned to never underestimate anyone. I never thought Bartoli would win a Grand Slam, you guys. Never. Ever. But she did. And what does that tell you? That we know nothing. Now, where there were laughs an eye-rolls, there are possibilities. Sure, most Slams will still be won by the “haves” of the world, but it’s beautiful to know that there is an alternative, that occasionally an under-the-radar player will live up to their potential and seize the day. In sports, anything can happen I’m still required to analyze and make predictions when I see a draw. But now, my mind is a little bit more open to the wildcards.

From Bartoli, I learned that it’s okay to walk away. Bartoli could have continued to play tennis. She would have been a much bigger star, grabbing appearance fees and bigger contracts now that she was a Wimbledon Champion. She could have, at the very least, done a farewell tour. She could have stayed. (I would have liked that.) But, instead, she listened to her body. Instead, she didn’t worry about missing out or leaving money on the table or disappointing people. Her body told her it was time to stop, and so, without any fanfare what-so-ever, she did.

From Bartoli, I’ve learned to appreciate what you have before you it’s gone. While I admire her decision, I wasn’t ready for her to stop playing tennis. I felt like we were all just starting to really appreciate her. So, this year I’ll appreciate every Benoit Paire meltdown, every Julien Benneteau tumble, and every Roger Federer shank. I’ll savor every time Sabine Lisicki hits a forehand between the lines, and every time that she doesn’t. I’ll I’ll give a second look to the players that nobody is talking about, and I’ll be a bit more patient with the ones that I just feel like giving up on. Because, truthfully, we just never know when the end is going to come.

This year, thanks to what I’ve learned from Bartoli, I’m going to try and trust myself more, hold my head up high, and live in the moment. Tennis-wise, I’m going to be more open-minded and enjoy the ride that is the tennis season, instead of letting myself get boggled down by the grind.

And, because I’m human and stubborn and change is hard, I’m going to forget all of these things, forgive myself, and then try to reflect and learn them all over again.

Mostly, I’m going to keep my eyes open, because there is just no telling where my next lesson will come from. I certainly didn’t ever expect so many to come from Marion Bartoli–but I sure am thankful that they did.

Lindsay is an author, a filmmaker, a long-winded blogger, and a huge tennis fan.

4 Responses

  1. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne January 12, 2014 at 2:02 pm |

    It is a rare thing in sports when both competitors bring tears to one’s eyes, but that’s how it was at Wimbledon on finals day this year. It was a beautiful moment.

    Mr Inverdale had it all wrong.

    A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
    Its loveliness increases; it will never
    Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
    A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
    Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

  2. Robert
    Robert January 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm |

    Marion is one of the few pro athletes you can actually admire in today’s look-at-me society. She did it her way for her entire career. She made tennis more interesting. She wasn’t the cookie-cutter high-tech super athlete. She was down to earth. She was someone that all of us could relate to. She will be missed very much.

  3. RZ
    RZ January 13, 2014 at 11:41 am |

    Bartoli’s quote in response to Inverdale’s comments are easily the tennis quote of 2013. So eloquent, well-stated, and a debate-ender.

  4. Nelly
    Nelly January 14, 2014 at 8:51 pm |

    That Wimbledon final was utterly shocking to watch. I thought Lisicki was going to run over Bartoli in the final with her superior weapons, but Lisicki melted down while Bartoli played steady the whole time. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a player melt down like that besides Hingis at the French or Novotna at Wimbledon. She earned that title, and pretty crazy that someone can play 47 grand slams and then finally win one and then retire almost instantly. Though Bartoli was one of my most disliked players because I thought all her between points fist pumping and antics was unsportsmanlike (as I think grunting during points is as well). But in the end whatever she did was legal, and she earned that title. She also didn’t deserve all the disparaging comments that came to her from analysts and commentators.

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