On your 9th birthday, you asked for three gifts: pearls, a Monopoly, and a Wimbledon victory. Why Wimbledon specifically?
Back then, it was broadcast unencrypted on France Télévisions. There was the French Open and Wimbledon, and my family would spend all June in front of the TV. When I saw my idol Pete Sampras raise the gold trophy on this wonderful green court, with the Royal Family and all the prestige, I thought: “Wow, if only it was me, one day…” It was my dream.
This dream came true twenty years later. When you heard the speaker say: “Marion Bartoli is the 2013 Wimbledon winner,” what did you think?
I had a lot of flashes from my childhood. I thought about the million tennis balls I hit on the boules pitch in Retournac, my home village in the Haute-Loire region, and about the trainings in the cold with my dad… He used to tell me: “You’ll see, one day, before the most important game of your life, you will understand how important these many serve practices were…” He was right.
Today, what is the first thing you see when you remember this Grand Slam victory?
Honestly, I cannot pick one. I don’t only think about the final, I also remember my doubts. The beginning of the season was hard, so it was kind of a miracle to win Wimbledon that season.
How were you when you arrived in London?
I was exhausted. I went from a little virus to another. I suffered from an Achilles tendinitis, so I would sometimes get up without being able to put my heel on the floor. I also suffered from a right shoulder tendinitis. In other words, it was all going wrong! It was my fourteenth year as a professional player and, to compete with – and sometimes beat – the champions I faced, I had to work even more, because I did not have the same natural qualities. It burnt me out physically.
Before the tournament, you decided to twist the structure of your trainings. Your father, who had always been your coach, was put aside a few weeks before. Why?
I felt I needed a new method, or at least, I wanted to try something else. So, I started practicing with Thomas Drouet, my sparring-partner. Amélie [Mauresmo] was our supervisor as Fed Cup captain. And there was Nicolas Perrotte, an FFT [French Tennis Federation] appointed personal trainer, and Antonin Mouchet, a physio. Instead of having my dad deal with everything, which is not easy, I had several people dealing with specific tasks.
What was your mindset before the start of the tournament?
We started a bit fresh and joyful. We thought it was better for me to take one match after the other, that we would wait and see… And I won one, two, three, four, five matches. Then, I beat Sloane Stephens in the round of 8, on Court 1. It was a very tough match and it felt like a stimulus. After that, I knew deep down that I would win the tournament.
You spent all your nights alone over the fortnight. Wasn’t it too hard to be alone all the time?
No, because I am a born loner. When I wanted to watch the end of the matches on TV, in my room, I could. I did not have to dress up and “pretend”. No need to go to the restaurant or waste my time chit-chatting. I was in my bubble, and I could focus on basic daily things: getting up, moving my shoulder as smoothly as possible, then moving my Achilles as smoothly as possible… I felt better every day, I improved the way I moved on the court match after match. Obviously, I was getting more and more self-confident, too.
To what extent the Wimbledon final you played six years before against Venus Williams helped you?
It helped me a lot. In 2007, it came out of nowhere. I had just beaten Justine Henin, a great champion. It was an earthquake in the tennis world. I did not have much time to prepare for the final against Venus Williams. My semi-final ended on Friday night, and I had to play the final on Saturday. I remember waking up thinking: “Wow, I am a Wimbledon finalist! I am going to play the match I have dreamt of since I was a child…” There were important people in the stands… The boss of the brand with the Swoosh was sitting in my box… I was under a lot of pressure. Not that I would have beaten Venus for sure if I had managed to deal with that, but I would have definitely been a tougher opponent [she lost 6-4, 6-1].
In 2013, your opponent, German player Sabine Lisicki, also confessed that she was “overwhelmed by the event”.
Before we entered the court, I saw quite a lot of fear in her eyes. When you get out of your dressing room, you go down the stairs and pass by the trophy gallery. You are then in the antechamber and wait for the TV to show you the “go” and enter the court. At that moment, I could feel all the pressure she was under, and it reminded me of my 2007 final. I thought: “If she is in the same mindset as I was six years ago, I can make the most of it…” Yet, the end of the match was extremely tight.
You rushed through the first set, 6-1. You were on the same path in the second set, with three match balls and a 5-1 lead, but pressure hit you as you were on the verge of winning…
Sabine was lost on the court, while I felt good… I was up 5-1, I scored another winning backhand and made it 15-40. I have rewatched Guy Forget and Frédéric Viard’s commentaries on Canal+ several times since then. They said: “The match is over…” The problem is that I, on the court, thought the same thing and I froze completely. If you are a tenth of a second late on a 120 mph serve, you cannot return it properly. Your return is too short, and your opponent wins the point. Sabine relaxed a bit, the crowd pushed her, it all went fast… I started thinking: “If she does this, if I do that, if she makes it back to 5-5, what am I going to do?” Honestly, if I had lost a Wimbledon final after leading 6-1, 5-1, 15-40, I don’t think I would have made it through.
Actually, how did you manage to win the match after you switched side, at 5-4?
It was difficult indeed. I had the serve. I tried to focus back on things I could control: “I can control the zone I am targeting, the first balls, I can play a long shot, be strong on my feet, bring intensity…” I could play like I intended to. I won that love game, but on the first point I had to defend, I changed the situation and scored a winning cross-court shot. It was a turning point. I felt way better after that.
Emotionally speaking, is a final a career in a nutshell?
Actually, the 2013 final was my life in a nutshell! Let me explain: I did not start well, she broke my serve straightaway due to my two double faults, then I focused, played my game, felt good… And I lost it when I had to finish it! I had to dig deep down into the strength I had gathered all my life to make my dream come true.
You were 28, it was your 47th Grand Slam tournament. Did you always believe you’d make it?
Well, every year, I had at least a slight opportunity. I reached the French Open semis in 2011, the US Open quarterfinals in 2012, when I had a 4-0 lead against Maria Sharapova only to lose 6-4 in the third set on the following day… So, in 2013, I knew I was close, and I never gave up.
In your autobiography (Renaître, Flammarion, 2019), you mention some words that hurt you when you were younger, like: “That girl is rubbish. She will be a 1.2, at best. She is crap, she is too slow.” Was it a revenge to win Wimbledon?
Of course, it was. Actually, all these hurtful words boosted me. I used them to prove they were wrong. If I had grown up in a cuddling environment, with people telling me I was the best, the most beautiful, perhaps I wouldn’t have this hard fighting spirit, which is what it takes to win a Grand Slam tournament.
There is this new film in which Will Smith plays the Williams sister’s father. Is the story of this dad who became a coach but was not a tennis man similar to your story?
I have never been a great champion like Serena and Venus, but I identify a lot with this film. It is why I am good friends with Venus and Serena. Their dad, Richard, has always been nice to my father. They greeted each other warmly after the 2007 Wimbledon final. They have always thought out of the box. People used to tell them it’s not how things are done, that there are other people who know better whom they should listen to… But they have always refused to follow a predefined path, to do like anyone else.
Your nonconformist father was not really appreciated by the French federal tennis. Yet, you remain the only French player to win a Grand Slam tournament over the past 15 years. Has your success changed mentalities in France?
Today, personal trainers are accepted in the Fed Cup, and the FFT has set training courses to involve parents. There was no such thing when I was a player, it is great! If my success served as an example, I am very proud, because it is impossible to achieve these difficult things without our parents. See champions like Roger, Rafa, and Novak: their families play an important part in many ways.
Three years after your Wimbledon title, you ran and finished the New York City marathon. A few weeks before, you were bedridden in intensive care. Were the emotions as intense when you crossed the finish line as when you won Wimbledon?
Totally. I went through extremely difficult times due to my anorexia. I had lost almost all my muscle mass. So, when I arrived in New York, most people thought I would not make it. At the last minute, my brother was allowed to compete. He is an experienced triathlete, so he is used to running long distances. He told me: “We will run at your own pace; I know you will make it.” In the early morning, you’d take a coach to get out of Manhattan… It reminded me of the US Open. All the streets were closed. Then, we started by waves. I did not have a single cramp during the race, and I kept running all the way through. I was so proud to finish this marathon in the streets of Central Park, which I know very well because I have been to New York regularly since the age of 15. I remember my father and my mother crying; they really did not think I could make it. I used all the mental strength I had earnt over my tennis career to finish the race in 5 hours and 40 minutes. I proved myself that I was alive.
How does it feel to be back in Wimbledon today to comment the matches?
It is an incredible joy. I feel so proud every morning, with my little purple badge, the one they give to former Wimbledon winners. Over the past few years, I took my husband and my daughter. Next year, maybe she will understand better, and I can tell her that mommy won there. I, the little girl from Retournac, have my name up there, among the very best tennis players of all time.
Does the boules pitch in your village, where you used to practice, still exist?
I have not been there for a while. My brother still has friends there and he told me that the boules pitch still exists, but that nobody practices there anymore. It was an important spot in my childhood and for my tennis career as a whole. Once again, perhaps I would not have grown my qualities under more comfortable training conditions. I don’t think we get the better version of ourselves out of ease.
Back to your 9th birthday gifts. You asked for a Wimbledon victory, but also a Monopoly and pearls to make bracelets. Did you get the other two gifts?
Yes, and I can tell you the Monopoly was at the heart of crazy game sessions! I was such a bad loser that my dad and my brother used to let me win, otherwise we would never go to bed. They just gave up in the end. It is funny because today, my husband is also very competitive, so, when we play board games, silence is so thick you could cut it with a knife, because we wish the worst to each other when we roll the dice or draw a card… As for the bracelets, you can see when I am on TV that I still wear many! Both are lifetime passions.