What Does It Take to be a Champion?
Good Luck Marion!
When I heard that Marion Bartoli had announced her retirement, tearfully, after losing last week in the second round in Cincinnati, citing constant pain in her body, I sighed. I get it. Totally. I am so glad she won Wimbledon in July! The pinnacle of a demanding career, she did it! Nothing left to prove, she’s done. Just like that, she’s walking away. Is it an impulsive decision? Will she come back after taking a well-deserved break? Who knows? At 28, highly intelligent, she can do anything she wants. What an amazing opportunity to forge a new life for herself.
Marion was never the classic tennis superstar everyone wanted to watch because she could be counted on to win. No, her appeal was in her driven and fierce bulldog approach to tennis. She was in perpetual motion on the court, bouncing nervously on her toes. She charged the ball with her two-handed groundstrokes, placing the ball where her opponent was not. Her service motion was weird, unconventionally reaching her racquet in an awkward motion to the side and back before striking the ball. Her nerdy, intellectual father-coach hovered in the background, a constant presence. She was an emotional, smart, and determined player with peaks and valleys of wins and losses.
I was glad to see her play a year ago at the U.S. Open. She wasn’t one of the superstars who got to play inside Arthur Ashe stadium that day. She was on Court 11 and that was fine with me. I prefer the outer courts anyway. You can sit up close on the bleachers and see every tic and every grimace and hear the curses and the self-talk. It’s like sitting in the front row at the ballet and watching the sweat drops fly during the pirouettes and the effortful lifts that look effortless from afar. Sometimes I even spy the entourage and scootch to a seat near them to hear the behind-the-scenes chatter that goes on, off-screen. It makes the sport so much more real. This intimacy is impossible in the touch-the-blimp seats inside Arthur Ashe where we usually sit. How do you get good seats anyway? I guess you have to be wealthy and connected and be willing to use your connections. Oh well, I’ll stick with the outer courts.
At Wimbledon, Marion showed a new side to her personality. She overthrew her father as coach. The announcement in early 2013 said it was a mutual decision. Maybe. I suspect it was a painful decision that was all hers. My god, Marion, that took guts! What were those conversations like? How much therapy did you require to tell your father to leave you alone? To tell him “Hey Dad, it’s my life and I’m going to do it my way now.” Kudos. She was on a high of exuberant confidence at Wimbledon. She had a new and supportive entourage. She was participating in the community of tennis instead of keeping to herself under her father’s watch. She looked like she was having fun! Albeit with even more of her usual intensity, focus, and drive. And she won! Without her father, she won!
Was that the problem? She couldn’t sustain her new-found bold independence from her father, her new-found sense of belonging to a larger community of friends and supporters? It’s hard for us introverts to transition to a more social role, isn’t it? It’s hard for us good girls to defy our fathers and go our own way, isn’t it? Especially if there is parental judgment hovering in the background. Did you feel compelled to be not successful without him?
Oh Marion, I don’t know you. I can only imagine the years of one-on-one constant, grinding, tennis practice with your father and his intense insistence on your success at tennis. I can only imagine how you absorbed his dream such that you could no longer distinguish between what was your father’s dream and what was your dream. Of course you wanted to please him and be a good daughter. Of course you wanted to win Wimbledon. You did it! You won Wimbledon! It’s completely amazing! Congratulations! Are you afraid that you are not a good daughter? Believe me, you are a good person. That is all a parent really wants. For their child to be happy, independent, and a good person. You can choose to live your own life and still be a loving daughter.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband would lay his head on my belly and whisper to her, “Hit the ball down the line, sweetheart.” Certainly, he would have loved to have a child who was a tennis champion. But it is too much. Constant and grueling, day after day. The tennis lessons, the discipline, the travel, the expense, the pressure, the competition, the complete focus on tennis, the stress of the tournament circuit. For everyone in the family. It’s not just the child’s pursuit, but it is the child’s life that is most affected. The child has to want to do it. But how can a child know what they want to do? It’s the rare child who is truly happy and naturally gifted and who has the ambition and discipline and family support to put 10,000 hours in to become a tennis phenom or a prima ballerina or whatever dream s/he chooses to pursue. We did not insist on pursuing a tennis life for our children and our children did not choose such a life. All we want is for them to be happy, independent, good people. (Bonus, they are pretty good tennis players.)
I watch tennis because I have personal familiarity with the sport. I enjoy watching tennis because I am fascinated by the stories behind the players. What drives these players to compete? Who has the mental capability to win? They almost all have the physical capability at this level. It’s the mental focus and ambition, flexibility and intelligence that separate the winners. What did it take for the players to get here? What was the parents’ role? What if my child played at this level? Would they be happy? Would I? And when it’s all over, at such a young age, what next? Tennis pro? Tennis commentator? Or back to school to start a new career? How do you integrate tennis into your post-tennis life? Or do you just walk away?
Marion, I wish you well as you navigate your next steps. I hope that you will own your win at Wimbledon and thoroughly take pride in that achievement. I hope that you will continue to forge your own path and live your life, independent from your father and supported by your deepening circle of friends and supporters who you are tentatively welcoming into your life. You have so much to offer, I hope that you will be just as bold and fierce off the tennis court. Share your passion. It’s your turn to reflect on what your dreams are now and to go after them in your way. Good luck. I am cheering you on.