Marion Bartoli might be a kooky French fruit-loop, but there could be no disputing her calibre on a grass-court on Saturday as she swept aside an emotional Sabine Lisicki to clasp the Venus Rosewater Dish and realise, in an expression of utter bewilderment, that she was the Wimbledon champion. Seizing her first grand slam title with this dominant 6-1, 6-4 victory, and barrelling through the entire tournament without dropping a set, this oddity from the Auvergne was the worthiest of winners.
One of the toughest, too. Bartoli disclosed last night that she had spent the second set in acute pain, with a growing blister under her big toe, and that she refused even to summon the trainer for fear of showing the struggling Lisicki any weakness. “I’m a very tough person,” she said, with a deceptively delicate smile.
“When I took my sock off it was red with blood. But I am this kind of person. Even if it felt like I could barely walk at the end, I could still focus.” Pausing, she added: “I am really as strong as wood,” banging on the table for emphasis.
Bartoli has needed to be resilient, ever since her father Walter put through her through punishing drills at a freezing gym in their hometown of Le Puy‑en‑Velay, offering her sweets only when her serves hit the tiniest of targets. Walter, who gave up his job running the local medical practice to coach Marion, was in the players’ box yesterday for the first time all fortnight, observing this remarkable consummation of their journey together. He was the one whom she thanked most profusely, the one she embraced most tenderly when it was all over.
“It is all so overwhelming,” she reflected. “I don’t know if you can fully know, but as a tennis player, when to start to hit balls at five years old and when you first turn professional, all you dream about is winning a grand slam. You think about it every single day. So when it finally happens, you have finally achieved something that you contemplated for perhaps a million hours. You went through pain, you went through tears, and so in those five or 10 seconds before you shake the hand of your opponent you feel almost like you are not walking any more on Earth.”
Poor Lisicki, the conqueror of Serena Williams but a tormented understudy when it mattered, looked as though she felt much the same way. Alas, her debut on such an august occasion turned all too rapidly from pleasure to pain. She stared in amazement at her traditional finalist’s bouquet, as if the spectacle of a sun‑drenched Centre Court was just a chimera. From her opening service game, which she threw away with a double-fault, she never looked as if she belonged in such an amphitheatre, on such a day.
This was pure, unadulterated stage fright, and deeply uncomfortable to watch. As she wiped away panic-stricken tears between points, and as she ballooned one first serve so wretchedly that it practically cleared the baseline, it was about as pleasurable as watching a child freeze during a public-speaking test. “It was something completely new for me,” Lisicki said, as she dissolved in tears at the thought she had not offered even a glimpse of her best. “The feeling, the atmosphere was different. You do not get it every day.”
Still, her unravelling here was distressing. She had become the poster-girl of the ladies’ draw by her easy grin and relaxed demeanour, as well as her formidably tenacious tennis – enabling her to prevail twice in three sets against Williams and Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska – but here she folded in the face of Bartoli, a one-off in the ladies’ game with her double-handed groundstrokes on both wings and her bizarre fist-pumps to galvanise herself before every game.
Long may Bartoli remain a singularity. She has been unfairly maligned during her progress through this draw, especially when she complained of bad light in her quarter-final against Sloane Stephens, but her reaction to this, her greatest achievement, spoke of her essentially charming nature.
Of late she has had to suffer some of the most testing times, jettisoning her father as coach last summer and claiming that she reached “rock bottom”. Without identifying the precise cause of her unhappiness, she has talked of a loneliness on the circuit with Walter not present, despite the fact that she once had to order him off court at Wimbledon for irritating her.
Off the court the 28-year-old is renowned for being fiercely intelligent; indeed, an IQ of 175 has been ascribed to her. She also completed what is surely a first at Wimbledon by correctly reciting the Fibonacci Sequence, the mathematical series where each number is the sum of the previous two, live on American television. “Here we go again,” she said, when the subject was raised, giggling and slapping her hands. “I am ready for the challenge.”
She was certainly primed for the main event yesterday, reeling off five games in a row to take the opening set. Lisicki eked out four break points to take a 2-0 lead in the second set but could only make four more hapless errors and when Bartoli forged ahead 4‑1, Lisicki began crying.
At 5-1, Bartoli reached match point three times as Lisicki belatedly discovered her game, striking the ball with the type of power that had deserted her. But it was too late, as the Frenchwoman rallied once more to hold to love and secured the win with her second ace of the match. She ran in rather ungainly fashion to the stands, clambering up to her box to be kissed by her friend Amelie Mauresmo, as her face spoke of a joy unconfined.