Her game was in such crisis that she fired her father/coach in the winter and hadn't gotten around to officially replacing him yet. She lost four consecutive matches in the spring. She plummeted in the rankings. She bowed out in the third round of both the Australian Open and French Open.
Even with a Wimbledon draw that was falling apart left and right, and even with "Wimbledon finalist (2007)" already on her résumé, there was no particular reason to expect 28-year-old Marion Bartoli to snap out of a long funk and raise the Venus Rosewater Dish. But sports don't have to make sense sometimes. Bartoli finished off a dominant two weeks in suburban London with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Sabine Lisicki in Saturday's Wimbledon finals.
In defeating Lisicki, Bartoli played exactly as she had played for the last two weeks, with nervous energy and controlled recklessness. She defended beautifully, she scrambled, she took advantage of every opportunity, and systematically, clinically took away her opponent's strengths. She was somehow both precise and unorthodox.
As for Bartoli's opponent, Smiling Sabine was nowhere to be found. Lisicki charmed viewers and attendees with loose (in a good way) play, confidence and tons of toothy grins. But the smiles stopped after the two players entered the court, and just two games into the match, when she was broken for the first time, her body language belied her frustration. The smiles were replaced with grimaces and a less-than-happy inner monologue. Her feet were flat, and her tactics were undone by a complete and total lack of confidence -- approach shots weren't deep enough, drop shots weren't short enough, lobs weren't high enough. Effervescence had turned into radiation.
This was the version of Sabine Lisicki that lost to Alison Riske in Birmingham, to Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Stuttgart, to Alexandra Cadantu in Poland, to Simona Halep in Miami. And needless to say, it was a bad time when the tears started to well up on the court in the middle of the second set. She finally loosened up from a nothing-to-lose perspective when Bartoli created a few match points, showing us the form that took down two top-four seeds and playing with power and passion. But by then it was too late. It is typically not a high-percentage strategy to spot your opponent 11 of the first 13 games.
Bartoli won Wimbledon in part because she was the first of the two finalists to overcome her nerves, and in part because she was just awesome for the entire fortnight. She didn't drop a set, and while she didn't face a truly elite opponent in any of her seven matches, it wasn't her fault that everybody kept losing. She kept pounding away service return winners, and her level of play was strong enough that there's nothing saying she couldn't have beaten top-five players just the same.
For a while, we got used to slam finals featuring newcomers to the stage. Before Serena Williams' resurgence, the WTA saw a long string of first-time winners and no repeats. The result of this was typically tight, error-filled matches in which the winner was the person who overcame nerves the quickest. We revisited that time on Saturday, but while Lisicki faltered on the big stage, Bartoli acted like she belonged there. And she did. And she completely redefined her career in the process.
With the championship in hand, Bartoli genuinely hugged Lisicki, then set about scaling the steps and walls of the stadium to her box for hugs and a lengthy embrace with her father. In her post-match ESPN interview, she said she could retire happy on the spot. You can indeed find redemption in sports sometimes, even when it comes to you out of the blue.