Updated: January 25, 2015 11:14:57 am
As a child, Marion Bartoli had heard many tales of India from her father. One of these was about Kashmir, a world whose beauty surpassed that of the French Alps, according to him. The good doctor from the small Corsican island had visited Kashmir in the 1970s as a skier and backpacker. The Frenchwoman, who won the Wimbledon in 2013 and retired soon after, grew up knowing she shared her birthday with Mahatma Gandhi, and feeling thrilled about that.
“After the exciting stories I heard, the first time I came here to play a tournament, I was all eyes open,” says the 30-year-old, who is known for her wide-eyed yelp when she strikes the ball on the tennis court. She’s travelled to four cities in India — Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai — over four trips during her 15-year career, and spent them lugging the tennis kit from hotel to stadium. But when she touched down last week as brand ambassador of the Mumbai Marathon, sight-seeing promised to rule the agenda, unencumbered by pressures of serve and returns. “Nothing about India disappointed me and it’s just as dad had narrated to me. People here smile; in the West, people have forgotten how to,” says Bartoli.
There’s the other Indian connect that brings a wide grin on her face — her boyfriend Jonathan Katz is half-Indian. “The first time we met in Paris, he didn’t know I had won the Wimbledon. I told him my biggest Grand Slam win, the only title I’ve won, happens to be in your country, and you don’t know about it? I told him I never wanted to see him again in my life!” she says in mock fury. “And now I’m seeing him and we’re going steady!” They met through a common friend at a Parisian hotel where both were catching a quick dinner; they are now based out of London. Romance began on a slow simmer, though before long she was trading notes with her partner on tales of India and catching up over curry with his India-born mom. Mumbai, where Bartoli is being hosted, is a two-hour drive from the place where her boyfriend can trace his roots.
With India as her first pit-stop for 2015 before she heads south to Australia for a stint of commentary and some legend tennis, and then a ski race in Switzerland, Bartoli’s left the grind of the tennis tour far behind. She spends a lot of time putting together jewellery pieces, the idea of minutely creating something solid appealing to her much more than just the usual retired sportswoman’s foray into a fashion line. She’s shared a tricky relationship with glamour: picked upon for her plain-Jane looks and utter indifference to her appearance when she played on court.
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Her long dark hair bunched up in a loose ponytail held back occasionally by a headband, and not a hint of make-up while she went about her workmanlike game, mumbling to herself on court and never quite leaving behind the earnestness of a schoolgirl while prepping to serve, Bartoli’s always stood apart from the Williamses and Sharapovas. Ask her if there’s intense pressure on sportswomen to look glamorous when competing, and she says it’s a trap that goes beyond a tennis court. “It’s not just sport. Women around the world are putting too much pressure on themselves to look a certain way. Just look at the women’s magazines around. Every Christmas or New Year’s, it’s all about how to lose weight fast and how to fit into dresses. Men’s magazines will be discussing the latest gadgets and watches, but women are running against deadlines reading ‘How to lose five kg for New Year’s’. If you read four such magazines, you’ll actually be thinking of losing 20 kg in four days!” she says, with a laugh. “But everyone is different in tennis, some girls like to dress up. Others can be fine without that,” she says. “And still win Wimbledon,” she adds cheekily.
Much before she was labelled plain-vanilla, though with crunchy sprinklings of an unorthodox game, Bartoli found succour in her school in Corsica island, where she grew up, from all the critical comments darting her game’s way. (She started playing at age six. She played double-handed on both flanks; and is predominantly a left-hander when writing, but is listed as a right-handed when she serves). A bright child, she was two academic years ahead of others her age, hence always the baby of the class. “School was like a getaway from the bad comments I got for my game. I loved school,” she says, adding that it was tough to internalise the criticism and then start ignoring it, though supportive parents urged her to.
She might have shrugged it off then, but constantly being told in her teenage years that her technique was all wrong still rankles. “It hurts as a child,” she
says, “No matter what a coach is thinking, he cannot be in the shoes of a child. I don’t see how anyone could talk to a young player like that. If I ever become a coach, I’ll never judge a child on his or her abilities. I’d rather see the child’s mental toughness, how motivated he or she is and how badly she wants to succeed,” she says. “People have no right to get so critical.”
All that early steeling of nerves, and extensive travelling — tennis pros are on the road 10 months of a year — gave her a world view that she says isn’t something every French youth can boast of, especially in deeply disturbing times like these when her country is struggling to cope with the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. Many of her compatriots struggle to understand diverse cultures, because they have rarely travelled out of Europe. “When you travel, you get exposed to so many different countries and cultures that it opens your eyes to the world. French youth don’t travel so much,” she says.
“No country deserves this,” she insists, referring to the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office, adding, “But it’s a difficult time for my country right now.”
Bartoli’s battles have ranged from struggling to hold a toothbrush on the morning of a Grand Slam match owing to her shoulder injury to losing heartbreakingly to Venus Williams in a Wimbledon final, six years before she went on to lift the trophy. “Sometimes, injuries are such that even basic things become a struggle. When it becomes too hard to do simple things then you know (it’s bad),” she says, talking of not waking up a single day without one niggle or another bothering her. Retirement — forced on her when her body began cracking up in multiple places and injuries piled on — was an easy decision, with or without the Wimbledon title. She moved to London to be with her boyfriend soon after.
However, breaking away ranks from fellow tennis players, who dig the excitement of glitzy exhibition-like leagues that are sweeping the sport for shortened versions of tennis, Bartoli’s not particularly kicked about tennis morphing into complete entertainment. “It’s tricky,” she says, crinkling her nose in disapproval. “People remember five-six hour matches. No one remembers a game because it gets over quickly,” she says, making a point that some legacies need to be safeguarded against commodification. “You can’t drift towards too much entertainment. Rules have existed for decades and decades. We should be careful about Grand Slams staying the way they are,” she says.
Bartoli was a misfit when she played the game, and she’s not afraid to stand out from the crowd even today.
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