Ten years ago, Marion Bartoli defied the odds to become one of Wimbledon’s most unlikely champions. On match point, the cameras captured her genuine shock when her ace threw chalk into the air. They then followed her ascent into the stands for a hug with her father, Walter, who had given up a career as a doctor to coach her from childhood.
Today, it is a quiet memory from that year – far from the crowds, on the rest day that used to break up the rhythm of the tournament – that remains one of her favourites.
This was back when middle Sunday remained a sacred sanctuary from match play. The grounds were eerily still, giving players the chance to breathe and stroll. A warm evening was closing in, and Bartoli had booked the last slot in one of the physio treatment rooms, in the building adjoining Centre Court. In the next room was Andy Murray, a mere week away from ending Britain’s 77-year wait for a men’s champion. This meeting of soon-to-be winners felt as serendipitous then as it does now, Bartoli says.
“This is something completely behind the scenes but it’s totally true,” she says. “Andy was having his physio session, I was having mine. We were coming out at the same time and my physio spoke to Andy’s. Both of them told each other, ‘I think we have the two Wimbledon champions right here’. It was only the middle Sunday.”
Murray was carrying the suffocating pressure of Britain’s drought in the men’s singles. Bartoli, by contrast, was diligently weaving her way through the draw without fanfare or fuss.
Did she believe that the prediction could come true? “I was like, ‘OK, maybe Andy but not me’,” she says, laughing. “Sure, the draw was starting to open for me, but it was still a long shot.”
She had never won a major, and Wimbledon 2013 was her 47th attempt. Plus, she had a shoulder injury. Bartoli had reached the final six years before, nerves overcoming her in a straight-sets defeat by Venus Williams. Few could have guessed that this tennis oddball – who played double-handed on both sides – would one day lift the trophy.
Somehow, though, she managed it. Under the tutelage of coach Amelie Mauresmo, she did not drop a set all tournament. When fellow finalist Sabine Lisicki, who had knocked out defending champion Serena Williams, suffered her own nerves, Bartoli seized the opportunity. She was only the third player seeded outside the top 10 to win the title.
Sitting in the busy player lounge at Roland Garros during the French Open, Bartoli smiled as she reminisced about her triumph. France’s most recent major winner, she was greeted warmly by a succession of fellow players and pundits – a woman in her element.
Most Wimbledon champions would call their crowning moment life-changing. Bartoli describes it as life-saving. A few weeks after she won, she retired aged 28 because of chronic shoulder pain.
Thrown into life without tennis, she entered an abusive romantic relationship and spiralled into a mental health crisis and anorexia battle that nearly killed her. Her weight plummeted to 41kg. “Even though you have been able to achieve something on court, as a person when someone puts you down constantly, he gets into your head,” she says of her ex.
“You start to believe, ‘Maybe I wasn’t that good. Maybe I’m a little too chubby. Maybe I’m doing this not well’. You start to doubt more and more, to where you feel there was no point any more.”
Bartoli now speaks with such assuredness that it is difficult to imagine her self-esteem being so devastatingly quashed. But for years she denied her eating disorder and struggled to talk of the damage caused by her ex.
She says holding on to her win at Wimbledon always kept her going. “It’s the mentality of not giving up,” she says, her eyes suddenly glistening. “As a champion, you have to be stubborn, and believe in what you’re doing until you achieve what you want to achieve. I think for me, it was that stubbornness, refusing to give my life away, because at some point I was so depressed I felt life didn’t have any point for me.”
Now Bartoli is back to her quirky and lively self. She has a two-year-old daughter, is married to a supportive partner, and is a respected broadcaster who will reportedly be one of Sky Sports’ main pundits after its tennis takeover in the autumn.
The turning point in her life came in 2016, when medical staff banned her from playing the Wimbledon legends tournament, through fears she may suffer heart failure. It sparked her to seek help, and even launch a comeback two years later to aid her recovery.
“Tennis really saved me. Just being on the court, somewhere I was comfortable, surrounded by people wanting the best for me, helped me to rebuild myself psychologically. People say, ‘You tried [to come back] and failed’, but it was not a fail at all. The goal was not to get me back on the court to play professionally, the goal was to get me back to live again.”
The scrutiny she faced about her worrying appearance was not new to her, either. Broadcaster John Inverdale started a media storm when, ahead of the 2013 final, he told BBC Radio 5 Live’s listeners that Bartoli “was never going to be a looker”. She took the jibe on the chin, even working in the commentary booth with him the following year, but says that her experiences in broadcasting have taught her women are still judged on their appearance.
“I think the mentality has evolved since I was a player into something a lot more based on whatever job you can deliver, rather than your outside look – finally,” she says, praising her employer Prime Video.
“But I still hear some comments [at other channels] saying, ‘Maybe she’s not the best, but she looks good’. It doesn’t make sense. You would never say that for a man, never ever, and that drives me crazy still. We still have some strides to do.”
Wimbledon 2013 is different. As she prepares to return to the All England Club this summer, her breakthrough still sustains her. “I remember every second, every rain delay, almost every point I played,” she says. “I really felt during those two weeks I could fly, like I could conquer the world.”