Thursday, 11 July 2013

Marion Bartoli is more than just a bundle of quirks

It wasn't something you could immediately explain, but in only a matter of hours following Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon win this Saturday, something about the way this was being processed and sold felt a little off.

As the world sits up and takes note, the only touchpoints offered with which we are to appreciate this oft-neglected, very talented and, yes, quite unique player are her eccentricities.

It's understandable, of course: no other player or lay person I know has that elaborate a training regime, or practices with that amount of intricate elastic attached to her arms and legs, or with balls under her feet - or like this. Nor, assuming that's what's happening, can I blame the media very much for trying to popularise a "lesser-light" to people who only watch tennis for four (or just two) weeks of the year.

But it's also a resolutely blinkered portrayal: whilst her methods are undoubtedly novel, the real reason, I suspect, we are seeing this over-egging of her indie-factor is that she doesn't, for the most part, look like a tennis player. And, well, that presents a quandary.

That probably needs elaboration: what that actually means is, she doesn't conform to "our" expectations - expectations conditioned by years of societal and media-honed iconography of what a female athlete and physicality itself is supposed to look like.

This has led to her being likened to a Rottweiler on air (yes battling players are sometimes described in animalistic terms but ask yourself how desirable this really is and why Sharapova would almost certainly never have that term used about her), having her drive and work ethic explained away as a coming-to-terms of sorts with the idea of never being able to look like Sharapova, and receiving a horribly predictable torrent of insults on Twitter.

People really have a problem with Marion Bartoli winning Wimbledon (and that's before one even approaches the question of asterisks). The only surprise there, sadly, is how unsurprising that is.

Yet even in what appear to be genuine efforts to give her her dues, the adulatory notes inevitably seem to give way to an all too familiar celebration of her quirkiness.

I like this to a point. The use of such a 'hook' seems to me to be a good way to catalyse interest in what is after all a diverse array of vibrant and interesting personalities not normally known to viewers who don't follow this sport year round the way I do.

Even within the ranks of tennisheads you wouldn't count amongst her fans, there exists an appetite to celebrate Marion for being Marion - it just seems ideologically unsound not to. So why on this occasion does it feel lazy, somewhat insipid, and, well, a bit of a cop out?

It's not that here haven't been some perfectly good profiles of her win setting out both the context and history of her journey, warts and all.

Nor am I suggesting that allusions to her quirks aren't in many cases (though clearly not all) benign and affectionate. I hardly need add that no profile can hope to steer completely clear of her oddities. Would we even want to read that?

Perhaps what I find so discomfitting is the credence this may give to the idea that she's only worth talking about because of these peculiarities.

Such treatment would, after all, be entirely at one with the type of banal coverage women's tennis often (some notable exceptions, as always) receives and with which Inverdale's comment - which, incidentally, has actually been trotted out in one form or another by many, well before his use of the word 'looker' this year - almost perfectly coheres.

Whether it's those tiresome 'decibelle' features, 'irreverent' debates about equal prize money, or quite deliberate scorn masquerading as nostalgia for an age of variety, the enduring subtext is this: beyond the glamazons and those too-big-to-ignore (already a problematic stratification), women's tennis is decidedly second tier - and the second tier of that second tier (of which Bartoli is a constituent) is something to be endured, politely exhibited perhaps but not engaged with in any serious sense.

You don't tend, after all, to be quite that denigrating towards a product you're supposed to endorse, value and enjoy.

You might, therefore, say Bartoli hasn't been a staple of the media for a very different, darker sort of non-conformance. Female athletes have always been judged by their looks - often to the total exclusion of their abilities and accolades - and held against an absurdly singular vision of 'body ideal' that our senses are daily trained to further imbibe and aspire to.

I don't presume to understand how Bartoli made sense of all this growing up but there's little doubt she's not about to let such vacuous notions of brand and marketability bother her now - her brushing aside of Inverdale's 'banter' was quite satisfactory in that regard. If, that is, we were ever in any doubt as to how she rolls.

But against that backdrop - and even allowing for a certain wackiness (we're not likely to see her accomplish this feat ever again) - it's difficult to avoid a feeling that someone who wasn't even accorded her own shirt sponsor until late 2011 isn't, at times, being treated as a bit of a sideshow.

That 'The Misfit' - a lovingly endowed moniker by her fans - isn't in the context of that murky place known as 'the world we live in' simply one of many tropes commissioned in order to avoid engaging with women's tennis in a way which should, by now, be axiomatic.

All in all, I'd say that's a bit of a shame considering tennis is one of very few global sports that can boast comparable participation and earnings amongst both genders.

Put simply, the occasion of her winning arguably the biggest title in tennis ought to be the moment for precisely such engagement, whatever else might have gone on to this point.

Especially if you're serious about grabbing the interest of young girls who need role models besides Maria and Serena - who, great as they are, can seem a little larger than life at times.

Far easier to comedify the funny-bouncy-lady who came through what was unarguably 'Wacky Wimbledon'.


The above notwithstanding, there's just no getting away from it: in her training methods, the way she plays, and in her dealings with the FFT, Bartoli is the antithesis of formulaic. Most people seem to agree this is no bad thing.

Yet what can sometimes get overlooked is that it's that very strain of determination and stubbornness to go about things precisely as she sees fit, that has (quite unsurprisingly actually) rendered her more relatable than countless other more media-compliant players are allowed (or allow themselves) to get.

Marion catnaps between matches, paints, giggles uncontrollably with her new team, and as far as I can tell, lives and loves life in ways which aren't always that dissimilar to many of us. Yes, there's an incurable oddball at the heart of this, but don't kid yourself we don't see these people all the time.

The kooks are all around us everywhere, all the time. In thrall to no one, and nothing but themselves, doing their bit to add to the entropy of our lives, everyday, little by little - staving off a Meagresville of sobriety, uniformity and compliance.

You know the type. We all do.

She hasn't always got it right. Her episode with the FFT could be construed as the authorities throwing their weight around, or a diabolically stubborn miscalculation on her part depending on whose side you're on. And amongst some, the view is that the decision to appoint a new dad-less team could have come sooner.

But isn't that what we all do when we believe in something?

Nor - and this is equally important - has she chosen to court popularity by cultivating that unbearable air of faux-eccentricity; by going out of her way to provide "quote", sporting ever-more mysterious tattoos, professing ever-more controversial opinions and generally providing the kind of fodder that makes some profile writers drool, but doesn't, in the clear light of day, actually stack up to a whole lot of anything.

Whatever else one might think of her, she's succeeded through discipline, rigour, the courage of her very well documented convictions, and, dare I say it, a terribly old-fashioned love of her craft, without recourse to the kind of swanky sponsorships that we are told are so important.

She's what I imagine an intelligent, articulate person that happens to be prodigiously talented at tennis being themselves actually looks like.

And that's why I'm a fan.

(Pics: Reuters, Julian Finney/Getty, Adam Davy/PA, Bartoli's Twitter Feed)

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