WIMBLEDON, England — There are times when tennis resembles nothing so much as a traveling high school. There is a sort of social filtration system that yields the popular crowd and the unpopular crowd, tribes of nerds and jocks and partiers and mean girls. Since enrolling almost a decade ago, Marion Bartoli has been, unmistakably, a WTA outcast.
She travels with her dad, a lapsed doctor from a small town in the French countryside who doubles as her coach and walks hunch-backed around events with a backpack on his shoulder. Bartoli paints and plays the piano and has the audacity to read books in public. She made a minor stir earlier this year when she announced that she had a genius IQ, the equivalent of bragging about your SAT scores. Her tennis is quirky and outre, too. Recalling Monica Seles, she hits with two hands off both sides. Her on-court rituals and mannerisms include taking practice swings when she returns serves — a tic that other players openly mock — and kangaroo hopping between her first and second serves. Without a clothing endorsement contract, last week at Wimbledon she played in a dress that resembled a hospital gown. During Saturday’s third-round match, she elicited snickers and snarky blog posts when she ordered her father to leave the stands.
What too many accounts failed to mention: after shooing son père away, Bartoli won courageously, 9-7 in the third set.
Bartoli may be tennis’ answer to Ally Sheedy putting sugar on her bread in The Breakfast Club. But like most high school classifications, “Bartoli as weirdo” is horribly crass. Yes, she is unconventional. Yes, she has no use for the glamour component of women’s tennis. But she is also, a fearsome and fearless competitor who, despite a limited game, has quietly nestled in the top 10 for years.
Today she played Serena Williams on Court One. And while a fourth-round match pitting the seventh seed against the ninth seed would, ordinarily, be a toss-up, Serena was the overwhelming favorite. If the defending champion hadn’t been her sharpest here in this, her first major in a year, she is still Serena Williams. She’s strong and still fast and can still go “Serena Diesel,” simply steamrolling opponents. And she still has an air that’s good for a couple games a set.
Against most players, that is. Residing on the fringes also means that Bartoli is impervious to aura. Before the match a French journalist friend predicted the match would be close “because Marion doesn’t get scared.” True, that. With her father looking on, Bartoli scored the upset of the tournament today and perhaps the biggest match of her career. The score will say that she won, 6-3, 7-6. It was the first time in 20 matches either Serena or Venus ever lost in the fourth round. It was the earliest Serena has lost here since 2005.
But what made this significant was that Bartoli didn’t merely win; she beat Serena. She had more aces. She dictated play. Hit just as hard off the ground. Bartoli pinned Serena behind the baseline and moved her around with laser-like groundstrokes. Afterwards, Serena, rightfully, wished that she had more preparation. But this wasn’t about rust or a lack of match. It was about a WTA player finally staring down Serena and, in effect, saying: “I don’t care who you are. I’m taking you down today.”
Bartoli clearly had a strategy — hit deep and never go more than a few balls to the same side. When Serena served, Bartoli not only stood irreverently inside the baseline (what others would consider risking life and limb) but jogged in place and danced around. Questionable gamesmanship? Yes. Weird? No doubt. But after all the WTA passivity, also the players who have buckled under the weight of big moments, it was telling to watch someone send the message across the net that she wouldn’t be intimidated.
Even on an off day and even without match play, Serena is still difficult to put away. Bartoli served for match at 6-3, 6-5 and squandered three match points. Plenty of matches have turned on less. No matter, Bartoli gathered herself in the tiebreaker, sustained her aggressive play and pounded out the win. “I dug deep into my guts,” she says. “The way I handled the pressure was good.”
When it was done, she rejoiced and looked up to Dr. Walter Bartoli, who had not been asked to leave this time. As the two players walked off the court, Bartoli went first, breaking with tradition that dictates the reigning champs walk off first and soak up applause. It was one last spasm of weirdness, one last indication that she won’t be cowed by The Mighty Serena.
After today there were still be eight players in the women’s draw. But if Bartoli can come anywhere close to matching both the shotmaking and defiant fearlessness she showed this afternoon, you have to consider her a real contender. Three more wins and then the outcast will be really be the Homecoming Queen.
• It tells you all you need to know about the current chaotic state of women’s tennis. When the ninth seed (Bartoli) beat the seventh seed (Serena) on Court One it created great buzz. Meanwhile the top seed, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, was banished to lowly Court Two, and scarcely anyone noticed. And, as fate would have it, Wozniacki was defeated by Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 7-5 in the third set. This, of course, will amplify calls that Wozniacki’s top ranking is counterfeit, that her failure to win a major reflects poorly on the women’s tennis ranking system. Let’s save that discussion for another day, though, and give credit to Cibulkova, a pocket rocket, who simply played with more urgency at 5-5. For all the talk about the WTA’s height requirements, it’s nice to know there’s still room in the cast for a compactly built slugger who stands 5-3 and weighs 121 pounds. Cibulkova will be a clear underdog in the next round again former champion Maria Sharapova. Which, given how today has played out, means precisely nothing.
• While Serena was blown away by Bartoli, her big sister went meekly, falling to Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova 6-2, 6-3. It was not only the second straight year Pironkova beat Venus at Wimbledon; last year’s match was the same score. Venus was gracious in defeat, praising Pironkova liberally and simply suggesting that it had been a bad day at the office. But, realistically, one wonders where Venus goes from here. Wimbledon is her best event — the only major she has won in nearly a full decade. When, at age 31, she can’t muster more than five games in the fourth round, you have to wonder if this remarkable story isn’t, finally, wrapping up.