MARION Bartoli had to wait six years to get a second crack at the Wimbledon final.
When the chance came, she took it in devastating style. In 2007, the Frenchwoman had played second fiddle to Venus Williams, winning only five games. Yesterday she turned the tables, crushing Sabine Lisicki 6-1, 6-4. At their best, the two are evenly matched: powerful, fast and aggressive. Alas, in this match we only saw them trade blows on an equal footing for a few brief rallies. The rest of the time, Lisicki simply failed to do her talent justice, and was overcome with nerves.
The German No.23 seed played some excellent tennis over the course of the fortnight, beating former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, No.14 seed Sam Stosur, world No.1 Serena Williams and No.4 Agnieszka Radwanska on her way to the final.
If you can beat the younger Williams sister you can beat anyone, but here the only person Lisicki beat was herself. Bartoli, by contrast, gave further evidence of how consistent she has become over the past couple of years. Seeded 15th, she had not had to play anyone ranked higher than her on the way to the final, winning every match in straight sets.
But it appears that she does not need the highest quality of opposition to raise her own game, because in this final she maintained a high standard almost from first to last, against minimal resistance.
Apart from the unavoidable handful of errors strewn throughout the contest, the point at which Bartoli fell markedly short of that high standard was the opening game.
Having won the toss, she had opted to serve first but, after saving two break points, threw the game away with two consecutive double faults.
That should have been the helpful start that Lisicki needed to calm any nerves, but instead she compounded the felony.
A loose forehand from the German set up two break points for Bartoli, and although she pulled one back with an ace, she then double-faulted to make it 1-1.
After such an underwhelming beginning, there was an understandable fear that the winner would merely be the one to commit fewer errors. Thankfully, though, Bartoli got her service action working in the next game, winning it with an ace.
That serve may well be the most unorthodox thing in sport since golfer Jim Furyk’s swing, which was memorably likened by David Feherty to “an octopus falling out of a tree”.
But when Bartoli gets her timing right – as she has done almost all of the time this past fortnight – it is extremely effective.
Lisicki’s return was one of the more effective aspects of her play, yet even when she did get Bartoli’s serve back she was confronted with an array of deep groundstrokes that frequently had her pinned back behind the baseline. And she was able to do very little on her own serve, as she showed when she was broken for a second time to go 3-1 behind.
Worse was to follow for the German after another easy hold for Bartoli. Having gone 40-15 ahead after actually taking command of a few points, Lisicki contrived to be broken for a third time, again throwing in a double fault at a crucial stage. Four points later, Bartoli had won the set, in just 29 minutes.
Lisicki left court for a few minutes before the second set began, and when she returned she seemed to have conjured up some composure.
But after holding her serve for the first time in the opening game, she squandered four break points in the next, and was then broken for a fourth time.
Once Bartoli went 3-1 up, the end was in sight.
The crowd did their best to get behind Lisicki, who of all the non-British players has been this year’s favourite, but she had given them precious little to enthuse about, and her 3-1 deficit quickly became 5-1.
Only then, with little left to lose, did Lisicki offer a glimpse of the mental strength that had got her this far. She held her nerve to save three match points in the next game, and then broke Bartoli in a long baseline rally to make it 5-3.
When that became 5-4 there was the merest hint that a comeback was possible, but Bartoli, serving with new balls, swiftly snuffed it out. An ace on championship point was the only appropriate conclusion for a contest in which she had been so dominant.
Bartoli collapsed to the turf before taking the Pat Cash path to the competitors’ box, where her entourage included her mentor, the 2006 champion Amelie Mauresmo. Mentally if not physically, Lisicki had collapsed some time earlier.
At 23, the German is the younger finalist by five years, and like Bartoli may just have a second chance to win this title. She had never been in a Grand Slam final before, and clearly has the ability to beat the best, provided she can deal with the psychological scars caused by this defeat.
Lisicki will be 18th in the new world rankings, Bartoli seventh. With Serena Williams reaching the age of 32 in September and unlikely to be on active duty much longer, both finalists could be contenders to take advantage of a power vacuum at the top of the game. If so, you can only hope, for the sake of that game, that their next meeting in a final is a far more competitive affair.