How final is final? Eleven days after shocking the tennis world with her sudden retirement, Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli admitted on Sunday that she cannot rule out a return to the court.
“You never know what is going to happen,” she acknowledged, at a press conference staged in the heart of Manhattan. “It’s pretty hard to say I will never come back.”
And there is a further hint of indecision in the fact that Bartoli has yet to ask for her name to be removed from the rankings list. Stepping off the ladder is usually a signal that a player has gone beyond the point of no return – or at least thinks she has.
When pressed on this question, Bartoli shrugged and blamed her own curiosity. “I just wanted to see where my ranking would end up at this year without playing any more. We’ll see where it takes me. If – if – one day I came back it would make no difference because I will have no points by August next year.”
Perhaps we should not read too much into these details. Most of Bartoli’s press conference underlined how ready she was to say goodbye. Not to tennis itself, because she still loves the sport, and will stay here in New York to work as a commentator during the US Open . But to the physical and mental strain of life as a professional player.
“I played my first match in Toronto against Lauren Davis and I won the first set in 25 minutes. I sat on my chair and my back was hurting, I can’t lift my arm above my shoulder because it is hurting so much. The same from my Achilles. If after 25 minutes of play your body is feeling like that, there must be something wrong. Really my body was just telling me that it couldn’t do it any more.”
Whatever happens in the coming months and years, the US Open will be the poorer for Bartoli’s absence. She has been one of the most distinctive figures on the WTA tour, both in her playing style – double-handed off both wings, with those furious rehearsal swings between points – and her personality.
A highly intelligent woman who scored 175 on an IQ test as a nine-year-old, her wide range of interests includes classical ballet, art and the Marseille football team.
“Coming back to New York this year,” she said, “I have been able to do something different, to go to the museums and enjoy everything the city has to offer. Until now, I had never had the time go to SoHo in 10 years’ of playing at the US Open.”
It may be that this breadth of interest makes it easier for Bartoli to stick with her decision. For players with less cultivated minds, the removal of a daily routine of training and practicing – which, in some cases, can extend to almost a 9-to-5 commitment – leaves a hole that is difficult to fill.
Bartoli was asked how she expected feel next summer, on the first Tuesday of Wimbledon . That is the day when the reigning women’s champion traditionally opens the schedule on Centre Court. Yet she will be in the Royal Box, while Sabine Lisicki – the woman she beat in the final – takes her place on the court.
“I think I will be totally happy for Sabine,” she replied. “A: because she is a great friend of mine. B: because I have nothing to regret. And C: because the name that is written on the Wimbledon trophy is mine.”
It has never happened, in the 136 years of Wimbledon Championships, that a reigning champion has retired rather than defend their title. But Philip Brook, the chairman of the All England Club has reacted quickly to this unprecedented scenario by organising “a special celebration when I get back from New York”, in Bartoli’s words.
“That touched me a lot; it was very sweet of him.” But one man she will not be looking up on her visit to London is John Inverdale, the BBC presenter who was accused of sexism after suggesting on air that Bartoli was not a “looker”.
“I just saw him briefly at the Champion’s Dinner,” she said. “He just presented me with excuses. But I said that honestly the most important thing to me was to be the Wimbledon champion. He passed by very quickly.”