One hot evening in July, a few years ago, I settled in somewhat randomly to watch a Wimbledon semi-final match on TV. Justine Henin, then the World No.1, was pitted against a less known 22-year old French player.
That Henin would vanquish her opponent to reach the final was a foregone conclusion. A day before, in a display of aggression and skill, she had defeated Serena Williams in a three set quarterfinal match. Though she had lost her premier ranking to Maria Sharapova at the start of the year, she had regained it after the French Open and was looking to speed through the Wimbledon Championships to hold her spot as the top seed.
Predictably, Henin powered through the first set of the semi-final in twenty minutes, leading 6-1. The crowd expected her to win quite effortlessly. And so this match might have had little recall had it not been for two unusual occurrences.
The first was that the cameras revealed Pierce Brosnan sitting in the Royal Box. He sat suited and buttoned up, a striking figure, though expressionless behind his dark shades. As the camera and the audience registered his presence, a second variance occurred. The game turned.
The young Frenchwoman, suddenly and unexpectedly, raised her performance several notches. Henin couldn't seem to get past her. The Frenchwoman was on fire with returns that were sharp and strong. At one point, mid-way through the second set, Henin applauded her opponent. Then, drawing all focus to her own play, she upped her game as well.
Henin (previously known as Henin-Hardenne) was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest players of the game. To see her playing evidently at her best was a treat. It was a match to watch.
In what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets in Wimbledon history, Justine Henin was defeated by Marion Bartoli, then ranked 19th in the world. Bartoli won the second set 7-5 and then clinched the third 6-1. She sparkled, as Henin crumbled.
The audience got to their feet to applaud Bartoli. After the match, when asked what had caused the turn in her game, Bartoli said in her thick French accent. "I was nervous and lost the first set since this is my first time on Centre Court." "Then," she said, "I saw Pierce Brosnan watching the game. I thought let's play some good tennis."
The young woman was inspired by the presence of admittedly one of her favourite actors; inspired enough to beat the top seed! It spoke of her spirit and her ability to channel a sudden surge of energy into focused play.
She eventually lost the finals to an indefatigable Venus Williams, but her performance had etched itself out in memory.
Her name didn't though. Though many could recall the match, I suspect some of us forgot of her, since she didn't quite make a splash again.
Not until this summer.
Wimbledon this year was not without its share of upsets. Maria Sharapova was ousted in the first week itself, and Serena Williams, the reigning champion, lost in the fourth round to a 23-year old German player, Sabine Lisicki. That shot Lisicki to immediate recognition on the circuit.
"I can tell my match against Serena has made such a difference. Suddenly the locker room clears for me when I walk in," she'd said in an interview to the BBC, just after defeating Agnieszka Radwanska, World No.4 in a tough match in the semi-finals.
With a tremendous serve up to 120mph and a strong forehand, Lisicki had vanquished several strong contenders including the 2010 French Open champion Francesca Shiavone, then Elena Vesnina, who had won the Eastbourne title, and then the 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur, all in the earlier rounds.
"She has power," Tracy Austin, a former World No. 1 said of Lisicki, a day before the finals. "I'll go with her!"
Sabine Lisicki was now to play the 28-year old Marion Bartoli in the Ladies Finals at Wimbledon.
Back from near oblivion for the sporadic tennis follower, Marion Bartoli's run to the finals was unexpected and much commented about.
First, her game was considered quirky. She displayed a most "unusual serve", sometimes without really tossing the ball high. She depended on the movement of her wrist for power in her serve. She used two hands for both her backhand and forehand shots. Her style of play was considered "unorthodox", and "self-taught", polite words to describe an indescribable style.
Since the age of six, her father, Dr Walter Bartoli, a former medical doctor had coached her. He continued to be her coach, until earlier this year, when she finally announced the end of that arrangement through mutual agreement. She spent several weeks looking for a replacement, before signing up with Amelia Mauresmo, a former World No.1.
It seemed that Bartoli had ridden through the years not so much on learnt technique, but on feel and passion - perhaps somewhat like a self-taught musician, who can't read the notes, but who nonetheless plays by ear.
There was also talk on how the Frenchwoman's run to the finals had been smoothened out by chance and fate. Victoria Azarenka The No.2 seed, the No.3 seed Maria Sharapova and the 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had all lost in other matches in Bartoli's half of the draw.
But if she was favoured by luck, Bartoli on her part had continued to play a steady game. In all the matches she played at Wimbledon this year, she hadn't dropped a set. That spoke of her drive, irrespective of whom she faced.
In a first, she'd participated in 46 Grand Slam tournaments, the most by any woman player, without winning one, yet.
That was to change.
Marion Bartoli served to start play at the 127th Wimbledon Ladies Finals on July 6, 2013. For the second time she was playing on Centre Court, after a gap of almost exactly six years. For the second time, the crowd was not with her.
When she served a pair of double faults to lose the first game, the audience applauded. Clearly, majority support was with Bartoli's opponent Sabine Lisicki, the 23-year old German, seeded 23 in the Championships.
From the start everyone waited to witness Lisicki's power-play. Time and again, she faulted, unable to return, unable to control her shots. Bartoli on the other side remained focused on her play. She took the first set quite easily at 6-1.
That done, the spectators expected Lisicki to get herself going and take charge. She did, by taking the first game of the second set. But Bartoli came back strongly to take the next game, after several hard rallies over almost ten minutes. The game deuced five times. Then, she broke Lisicki's serve and took the next game as well to lead 4-1.
At this point, dejection was writ large over Lisicki. She wept and choked a bit, and when the score touched 5-1, Lisicki finally began to breathe life into her game bringing it to 5-4.
It was an effort that came too late. Bartoli served to take four consecutive points, to become the Ladies Champion at Wimbledon.
Marion Bartoli spoke excitedly after winning the match. "I can't believe it... I'm a little mad, but then I'm French you know..." she said, good-humouredly, among other things. Yet through her excitement, she was generous, gracious and compassionate in her comments about her opponent.
Her game was spirited yet steady, not just through the match, but through the tournament. She spoke passionately, yet reasonably. She played a unique unknown style and won a Grand Slam at that.
The lady seems to strike a balance between disparate elements, probably because she's found her own way. She is a novel mix of stuff and spirit. Evidently there is no set script she's followed in play or personality. She wrote her own to win unexpectedly when Henin was supposed to have breezed through the semi-final she played against Bartoli in 2007.
She wrote one again this summer. This one though ended happily for her!
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