Marion Bartoli wins Wimbledon, retires
This is an extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 23 Interview Issue. Subscribe today!
Shaun Assael: You played 46 consecutive grand slams before you finally won one at Wimbledon. Did winning feel the way you thought it would?
Marion Bartoli: Definitely not. This 47th one was a total shock and surprise. I stayed very calm and focused up until the last ball was played. But when everything was over, I got overwhelmed. I asked my dad a million times, "Did I really just win Wimbledon? Did this really just happen?" It took me at least a month to really realize what I had just done. Now I have my Wimbledon trophy in my bedroom and I see it light up right in front of me every morning as the sun is rising. It's the best morning view you can dream about.
Assael: One of the key statistics of your win is that the match flew by in just 81 minutes. And your opponent, Sabine Lisicki, was only the 23rd seed. How do you think the final is going to be remembered?
Bartoli: I think people will be emotional about it because it was not the same as usual. It was very unique in a way that I would not share with Venus [Williams], with Maria [Sharapova]. It was not someone who was expected to win; it was the dream of two girls who wanted to be there one day.
Assael: Thirty-nine days later, you lose a second round match at Cincinnati and announce you're retiring. What happened?
Bartoli: My body was starting to break up piece by piece. At some point, when the pain is too extreme, you feel almost that your health is in danger. I remember playing in Toronto [at the Rogers Cup on Aug. 7] and winning the first set 6-0. I sat in my chair after 30 minutes and felt my whole body on fire. I ended up winning that match, but the maximum time I had pain-free was 30, 35 minutes. What's the point of keep doing that? I'm 29 years old. I've been on the tour since I was 16. I never missed a grand slam. I played 47 grand slams in a row. My whole body just was begging me to stop. For me, the decision was very clear.
Assael: Is the game becoming just too brutal for some players to withstand?
Bartoli: The process you go through during the 10-month season is very hard. Every player has improved so much. You have to practice more and more and be fitter and fitter. Ten years ago, your top players didn't need to be at the top of their game when they started a tournament. I'm thinking about Monica Seles or Steffi Graf. Look at the first rounds of their slams. They were 6-1, 6-love, or 6-love, 6-love. It wasn't even close. When you look at the field right now, if you don't compete well from the first round, you can go out easily. It puts you under a lot of pressure in every tournament you play. Plus, there's the travel around the world and the jet lag. It's really hard to sustain those 10 months in a row.
Assael: If you could change one thing about the women's tour, what would it be?
Bartoli: Giving us a bit more time between the French Open and Wimbledon. It's really hard to go from clay to grass in two weeks and to bounce back after a draining grand slam. It's really hard mentally. I think that is going to happen in maybe two or three years' time, where we will have an extra week to rest.
Assael: How does your body feel now, three months after retirement?
Bartoli: My back and my shoulder are still hurting.
Assael: A lot has been written about your dad, Walter, who's coached you for most of your 14-year career. The two of you split in February. Five months later, you won your first slam. Is there a message for other parents in that?
Bartoli: My dad has always been very clear with me, telling me when he felt he could teach me more. He wasn't afraid of criticizing his own work. It was a very smart move for him to say, "I gave you everything I could give you, but now if you want to reach higher, you need to make that move." There was always a discussion about it. After a relationship that close, you almost feel bad if you break through on your own. Ninety-five percent of my game is the work I did with him. But I had an extra 5 percent that I needed to find. Once I was able to practice on my own and do things on my own terms, it helped me become more secure on the court, to make decisions a split second earlier. The gap between winning and losing is extremely tiny. There were some very close matches during the road to the Wimbledon that were extremely tight. I'm thinking about the match against Camila Giorgi or the one against Sloane Stephens. It helped me in the very toughest moments feel calm about my strengths. I think that's what I needed to feel. I'll never forget going to the players box after I won and taking him in my arms. In the two seconds we had before we hugged each other, I told him, "Dad, I finally got it. I got my grand slam."
Assael: Your fans are some of the most loyal in tennis. They took to Twitter in July to demand an apology after a BBC commentator wondered whether your dad had to teach you to be scrappy because "you're never going to be a looker. You'll never be a Sharapova." Do you get as upset as your fans when you hear things like that?
Bartoli: Well, I've never dreamt about being Maria Sharapova, so I was really not touched by his comments. But I was very touched by the way my fans reacted to his comments. And now that I've retired, it's gone way beyond any of my expectations. People say, "You made me cry when you won Wimbledon. You are such an inspiration."
Assael: What do you think they see in you?
Bartoli: A lot of people really discourage you from being different. I think I was a perfect example of embracing my differences and making it a strength instead of trying to be someone else. Yes, I missed [winning a grand slam] 46 times. But I never stopped dreaming about it, even though sometimes I felt I was so far away. People would tell me, "Oh, you will never do it. It's not for you. It's not for the kind of person you are." But, yes, it is possible. It is possible if you have this fire inside you, this little light in your heart.
Assael: Your fans were also livid over a Reuters headline at the French Open this year that read, "Bartoli Hogs the Stage in Three-Hour Victory," a win that delayed Serena. Do you sometimes feel she gets too much attention?
Bartoli: I never read the press, to be honest with you. I read about all the other sports but never tennis. It was not something I was interested in. But I will say this about Serena: I've known her for many years; she is very nice and cool off the court, very fair. And she has great sportsmanship. When you beat Serena, you know you've achieved something massive. If you lose to her, you are just trying to analyze what to improve. She's a great ambassador for women's tennis, and she makes all of us raise our level of play.
Assael: The word "marketable" is sometimes used as code for having appealing looks. Do you ever get upset when you hear how marketable certain players are, considering that you went so many years without a clothing sponsor?
Bartoli: No. I've never tried to be just like the player with the nice forehand, the nice look, the nice marketability or whatever word you're using for selling a product. I've always embraced my differences. I can give you the names of a hundred girls who hit the ball way nicer than me. But they don't have the trophy that I have in my bedroom today.
Assael: OK, I have to ask: Is your IQ really 175? Albert Einstein's was estimated at only 160.
Bartoli: [Laughs] I was 12 when I took the test, and yeah, that was the result I was given. It surprised my teachers. But that was a long time ago. I don't take myself very seriously. I think the key to happiness is being able to poke fun at yourself.
Assael: Plenty of players who retire can't seem to stay away. Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters all came back after hanging up their rackets. Are you leaving the door open, just a little bit?
Bartoli: I should start counting how many times I get this question. I think I am close to maybe 10,000 times. I am not even 30 and everything I wanted to achieve as a tennis player I've achieved. Now I have a whole new life in front of me. I'm trying to break into fashion and start designing my bag line. And paint! And I want to get married and get started with a family. Everything I wanted to achieve as a tennis player I've achieved. Deep inside me I know I will not come back. Since making that decision, I haven't spent one day having any regrets about it.