By David Kane, Special for Tennis Grandstand
If Caroline Wozniacki represents the proverbial tragedy mask, then Marion Bartoli, intentionally or otherwise, is at the US Open to provide a healthy dose of comic relief.
The early days of the year’s final Slam are filled with tension around the grounds; while the top seeds are blowing past under-ranked and overmatched opponents on Ashe, the magnitude of the moment seems that much greater on the smaller courts, which makes for some compelling drama. All players react to the resulting stress differently: Maria Sharapova puts her back to her opponents, Novak Djokovic will bounce the ball 20 or more times before a serve. Marion Baroli, already a standout with her two-fisted groundstrokes, will engage in a series of massive high jumps and a most intense game of shadow tennis before approaching the baseline to receive serve, all the while bobbing and weaving like a prize fighter.
Yes, Bartoli is taking the moment very seriously, but that doesn’t mean her unorthodox methods and physical comedy don’t provide a deflation in tension for fans that would otherwise be gripping their benches after a long day of tennis.
With a win over Romina Oprandi, Bartoli would book a spot in the third round, but more importantly, she would re-enter the top 10 at the expense of her tragic counterpart, Wozniacki. During the first set, it was apparent that the Frenchwoman was brutally aware of all the circumstances and subtext of the match. Besides wanting to get back with the game’s elite, Marion has something to prove at this tournament; she’s had mediocre Slam results in 2012 and has to be looking at the US Open, played on one of her best surfaces, as a golden opportunity.
Oprandi, a player who has struggled with injury for most of her career, arrived on the court tape-free for the first time in a while. As the match got underway, she tried to use her signature drop shot to keep Bartoli off balance, but to no avail. The Bartoli rituals were in full effect and her eyes were on stalks; as she wrapped up the first set 6-2, it was refreshing to see a player so determined and unafraid of the moment, even if the moment was taking place far from the stadium courts.
But Bartoli, for her cartoonish nature, is still very much human, who can be inspired to play unbeatable tennis during a Wimbledon semifinal just because she sees Pierce Brosnan in the stands, and one who can become distracted upon hearing shocking news. Court 11 may be metaphorically far from the stadiums, but is physically much closer, and we could all hear Kim Clijsters’ last singles match unfold with the help of the booming loud speaker. Suddenly, Bartoli was on the backfoot and Oprandi began to dominate.
Perhaps it sounds illogical, but it’s happened before, even to Clijsters herself; the Belgian wasn’t the same in a Wimbledon quarterfinal she had been dominating after the scoreboard announced Venus Williams’ shock loss to Tsvetana Pironkova. Whatever the reason, Bartoli’s unique rhythm had been severely interrupted, and things became just a little less comedic on Court 11 as Oprandi ran away with the second set 6-1.
Entering a third set always seems like a dicey proposition for someone whose unorthodox game and style translates to some questionable off-court training. But the Frenchwoman’s unshakable belief often makes up for any other shortcomings, and she was able to once again grind her way to victory, even if it took until 7-5 in the third. Match point was typical Marion, who couldn’t resist taking an exaggerated practice swing off between serves before blasting a forehand into the Oprandi backhand, provoking the error.
On behalf of fans everywhere, Marion, never change.
David Kane is an avid tennis fan reporting from the grounds of the U.S. Open. You can follow him on Twitter @ovafanboy.