A glance at the list of men’s singles champions at Wimbledon the last dozen years reveals plenty of pleasant-enough looking chaps, though not a single slam-dunk male model in the bunch.
No matter. Each one was instantly fawned over the moment he held the trophy aloft, celebrated for toughness, smarts and the kind of devotion that knows no quit.
Marion Bartoli displayed all of those qualities — and more — on the way to winning Wimbledon in this most tumultuous of years. But because she’s a woman, at least one man behind a microphone couldn’t stop there.
His name is John Inverdale, and even as Bartoli headed toward the spectator’s box where the father who taught her to play tennis sat, Inverdale’s listeners on BBC Radio were treated to some musings about how she came to possess a champion’s ability.
“Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.”’
Inverdale has apologized, of course, though that hardly came off better than his original remark. The BBC did, too, before reporting that nearly 700 viewers called in as of Monday night to complain. It’s kicked up a row in print, on the airwaves and across social media over in Britain similar to the one that buzzed briefly over here when Brent Musburger awkwardly rambled on about Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend during the broadcast of the college football national championship.
The principals who find themselves the subjects of such remarks rarely make it out of the ensuing media circus gracefully, but the Bartolis are proving themselves rare exceptions.
For her part, Bartoli showed up for the champion’s dinner looking like a model — “her dark hair down in a loose wave ... figure-hugging black dress ... sky-high ankle boots,” as one British newspaper breathlessly reported — and then said, “I invite this journalist to come and see me this evening in ball gown and heels, and in my opinion he could change his mind.”
When her father, Dr. Walther Bartoli, was asked about Inverdale’s comments, he simply said, “I am not angry. She is my beautiful daughter. The relationship between Marion and me has always been unbelievable, so I don’t know what this reporter is talking about.”
Neither did Inverdale at the time — and that’s the real shame in this whole mess. There actually is a long, very tender and very complicated backstory behind the latest Wimbledon champion and her father that has nothing to do with her “looks.”
Walther Bertoli was Marion’s first coach, largely reponsible for her jarring style. She plays aggressively, but isn’t very fast. She hits two-handed off both sides, a strategy Walther Bartoli insisted she master after watching Monica Seles rise to the top of the heap nearly 20 years ago. His guidance was important enough that only last summer, Bartoli reportedly turned down a chance to represent France at the London Olympics because of national federation rules about having private coaching at a previous event.
But this past February, Bartoli arrived at the same crossroad that a number of great athletes and their parents-as-coaches often do. She and her father parted ways, and after some shopping around Bartoli wound up settling on former Wimbeldon champion and countrywoman Amelie Mauresmo. And indeed, she got fitter and more mobile.
Bartoli didn’t drop a set throughout the past fortnight, an impressive feat when you consider how all the top seeds stumbled, including Maria Sharapova, who actually works in her spare time as a model.
Bartoli was beset by plenty of the same nerves that felled the rest. Watching her hop back and forth awaiting serves can make you twitchy, but it’s one of those things Bartoli relied on since she was young to help cope with the pressure.
Old habits are hard to break, which also explains why she looked often in her father’s direction during her win over Sabine Lisicki in what was a mistake-filled final. Bartoli had been in Lisicki’s sneakers in 2007, when she lost the title match to Venus Williams. No one likely understood better the distance she had traveled since that day than Walther.
No doubt he told her, from the time Bartoli was small, that she’d have to “be scrappy and fight.” Inverdale got that part right. Plenty of athletes have heard the same thing from one parent or another over and over throughout their careers.
But the other part, the part about how she was “never going to be a looker” is not just cruel, it’s stupid. Because if it were true, we’d have precious few champions to fawn over — man or woman — in the first place.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.