As Marion Bartoli wandered around the neighborhood of Wimbledon before the start of this year’s tournament, she was several times asked “How do you feel? Will it be hard to defend your title?” Her answer: “Not really because I’m not going to defend it.”
No female winner at Wimbledon has said that since 1997 when knee surgery prevented Steffi Graf from returning to the court. Howard Fendrich, who’s been covering the tournament for the Associated Press, joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the decision of last year’s women’s champion to abdicate her throne.
BL: When she was six years old, Marion Bartoli began dreaming of winning at Wimbledon. But I gather that fulfilling the dream did not entirely explain why she retired shortly after winning the title last year.
HF: No, but it probably made it easier for her to walk away from the game. She was only 28 and probably could have stuck around for several years and been competitive as a top 1o or top 20 player, but the injuries and pain just grew too tough to take. She had a bad shoulder that she said to this day sometimes hurts her to lift her arm. The trials and tribulations of day-to-day life on the tour just added up to too much for her, and she decided to walk away about six weeks after winning last year’s championship.
BL: Bartoli wept for a long time after she returned to Centre Court early this week. But is it fair to say that she enjoyed her return to Wimbledon — never mind that she wasn’t there to hit tennis balls?
HF: Yes, definitely. She seemed thrilled to be able to walk into the gates here as a member. [A] championship at the All England club accords one lifetime membership to what is a private club. Traditionally the defending women’s champion opens play on Centre Court on the tournament’s first Tuesday. That, of course, was not the case this year because of Bartoli’s retirement.
Instead, Sabine Lisicki of Germany — the woman who was a runner-up a year ago — played in that first match. But Bartoli was present. She was invited to sit in the royal box at center court and she took part in the pre-match coin toss and she got choked up there. She was wiping away tears — clearly moved to be back on the patch of grass that forever will be the most important one in her career.
BL: According to what Bartoli said at the pre-tournament press conference she vividly remembers the moment she won the title. Would that explain why Bartoli acknowledged that every two days or so she watches the video of that final point of her final match?
HF: Yes, absolutely. She can’t get enough of it and who could blame her for wanting to relive that great moment of triumph over and over again? But it was a neat sort of acknowledgement on her part that there’s nothing blasé about it as far as she’s concerned.
BL: It’s rare for somebody who has won something as prestigious as Wimbledon — or had a really great season — to retire so young. Can you think of anybody else in tennis or elsewhere that can compare to Bartoli in that respect?
HF: There have been examples in tennis. The most famous probably is Björn Borg who won 11 Grand Slam titles but walked away from the sport in his mid 20s at the height of his powers. Women such as Kim Clijsters or Justine Henin or Martina Hingis who left in their 20s. And then there’s the case of Pete Sampras who was still in his early 30s. The very last match he ever played as a pro was the final of the 2002 U.S. Open when he beat his longtime rival Andre Agassi for the title. That was Sampras’s 14th Grand Slam championship, and he never played another match.