Fashion is her passion

Marion Bartoli... exploring other things in life.-VIVEK BENDRE

Marion Bartoli took the plunge into the fashion world soon after winning her first Grand Slam — the Wimbledon women’s singles title at the 2013 All England Championships. G. Viswanath caught up with the Frenchwoman who was in Mumbai recently as the Brand Ambassador of the 12th Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.

Marion Bartoli designs bags, shoes and clothes and has her own jewellery line. She took the plunge into the fashion world soon after winning her first Grand Slam — the Wimbledon women’s singles title at the 2013 All England Championships. Not surprising though for someone who is French. Her London-based boyfriend is half-Indian and his mother, Kalyani, takes her out to Indian restaurants. It was her 13th year in professional tennis when she decided to quit the game and explore other things in life. Bartoli had earlier reached the Wimbledon final in 2007, the French Open semifinals in 2011 and the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2009 and the U.S. Open in 2012. The 30-year-old has worked with English and French televisions, giving her expert opinion on the game. Bartoli who was in Mumbai as the Brand Ambassador of the 12th Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon spoke to Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: You won eight WTA titles in 13 years of pro tour and a Grand Slam title came at the end of your career.

Answer: It was always my dream to win a Grand Slam title one day. But I did not plan for it; or my retirement. When I started 2013, I had a bad shoulder injury and as it turned out, that was the year I won a Grand Slam. I wish I had won a Grand Slam earlier and gone on and played (for some more years). It just did not happen that way. I was very close to winning a Grand Slam after defeating Justine Henin in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals. It rained and there was not a day off after my semifinal and then I ran into Venus Williams. It happens; in your career you have highs and lows. It’s a matter of how many matches you are able to win. Obviously the Grand Slams are the toughest to win. That’s for sure and it’s very difficult to get a title. When you count the number of players who had won a Grand Slam title in the last 50 years, probably one would count around 20 names. So, to be among them is a massive achievement for me.

Serene Williams has dominated the four Grand Slams, but in recent times different women have won. And it looks this trend will continue.

Men’s tennis too has become open with Stan Wawrinka (Australian Open 2014) and Marin Cilic (U.S. Open 2014) becoming new Grand Slam winners. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have been absolutely dominating for quite some time but it’s starting to turn around. Roger is kind of getting older and finding it difficult to win; and Rafael is getting injured as well. I think it’s great to see new winners because a new player winning a Grand Slam is like a fairytale; it was for me, and so it will be for Wawrinka and Cilic. The public also want new players to win Grand Slams. Serena has been winning a lot of Grand Slams, but it’s great to see, once in a while, others also winning.

The Europeans are virtually dominating the women’s tennis; apart from Serena and Venus, there’s hardly a top-ranked American in the WTA list; there is a huge gap.

There are some new countries emerging. China’s Li Na was leading the way. There are more Chinese players coming up, though they are ranked between 50 and 100. I think in the next two years, there will be one or more Chinese players in the top 30. That’s my prediction. Of course tennis is strong in Europe, especially the Eastern part of it where a lot of girls play tennis. So just based on the numbers, it’s pure mathematics. When you have a high number from Europe, there is every chance that many of will become professional players.

As you said there are so many from Europe; do they play for fame or money? What drives them to spend so many weeks on the circuit? Russia has several players in the top 50.

I think it’s because of their history. For players from Russia or from the countries of the East European bloc, playing pro tennis is to escape from their nations and have a better life, basically. Players from other European countries, America or the rest of the world, play for the sheer love of the sport. But at some point, all of us have to succeed. So, when you look at the top 100, we never played for the money. We are passionate with whatever we do. It’s a difficult life though, being on the circuit for 30-plus weeks. If anyone thinks that we live only in five-star hotels and the best places in the world, that’s not the reality; the reality is we leave our family and friends behind and travel by ourselves. It can be extremely lonely. You go through a lot of ups and downs and you have to sustain that for 15 years in a row. So if you are not passionate, there’s no way you will be able to enter all of that (enter so many competitions).

Apart from Li Na and now Japan’s Kei Nishikori, not many Asians have done well in recent times. The Asians have fared better in other racquet sports such as badminton, squash and table tennis. Does the cost of club membership in the absence of public courts and equipment deter the Asians to pursue the sport?

The WTA has signed a contract with Singapore for the Masters for five years. By bringing the sport in a big way to Asia we hope to get the attention of the younger generation. If you don’t have kids picking up racquets and playing, it’s very difficult to perform at the highest level especially when they don’t have the facilities and coaching. Li Na had to go to USA for practice; she was not practicing in China. After she won the French Open, China built more tennis courts. I don’t know if tennis has developed in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. I think the facilities there are more for table tennis, squash and badminton. So the goal should be to get the sport into the region, make sure people watch it on television, get inspired by us and go out and play. If you want to practice, you can play against a wall. The first racquet I bought; it was with my pocket money. My parents also taught me the value of money. I don’t think people in East European countries have a lot of money to buy racquets regularly. I think it’s more about the visibility of the sport and that’s why the WTA has chosen Singapore as a hub for the Masters.

Is it possible to have an Asian Grand Slam?

No. Grand Slams reflect the history of tennis at a particular place. There are big events in China and the Beijing tournament offers $4.5 million as prize money. It’s one of the biggest tournaments outside of the Grand Slams. It’s the sixth biggest in terms of prize money on the WTA calendar. We have many tournaments in the region, but they have come recently. One cannot build something in two or three years; it takes time, five to 10 years to see some results.

Marion Bartoli, brand ambassador of the Mumbai Marathon, cooking pasta at a sponsored event on eve of the run.-VIVEK BENDRE

Vijay Amritraj has said $10,000-25,000 is the way to go for Indian tennis. It helps players to win points and hope to be among the top 200.

Obviously you have to go up from the start. In the ITF calendar there are many tournaments from $10,000 to $75,000. There is a chance to play every week. So I agree (with Vijay). It will help the Indian players to get some points. You don’t have to travel abroad all the time. In France there is a tournament, almost every week of the year. So the French get a chance to play against all the players, get some points and improve their rankings. It takes a lot of infrastructure to do that. The French Federation and Roland Garros have the money and they conduct a number of tournaments for the male and female players.

You said you don’t play for money; but having been a professional would you say things are okay with the prize money structure?

When we started the circuit, we played for nothing. We have come a long way. It’s getting better and better. Obviously, when you take the top stars of the game, especially Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, and the numbers they are able to come out with their prize money and other contracts it proves that tennis is the strongest sport for women in the world. We are really going in the right direction.

Do you feel players these days are adapting well to different surfaces (clay, hard court, grass etc)?

It depends on the versatility, but that’s very individual. Clay was a nightmare for me although I reached the semifinals of the French Open once. It was always tricky for me. I have always been more natural on grass courts. The surface you grow up playing will remain your favourite surface, no doubt, but if you get a chance to practice a lot on other surfaces, it would definitely be helpful.

What are your predictions for 2015? Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and Romania’s Simona Halep are doing well.

When you are in the circuit in the first year, everything is new and you have nothing to lose. The players don’t know you well. In the second year all the coaches and the players know about you and then it becomes a lot trickier. You have all those points to defend and it can turn out into a difficult situation. Simona is more experienced and it’s more about experience, not about ranking. She has been playing since 2011 and so she is able to deal with the pressure a bit better. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Eugenie Bouchard plays; she has a lot of points to defend in the first six months and the pressure will be huge in the second-half.

Where is women’s tennis heading from here? Many have emerged since the Martina Navratilova-Steffi Graff era.

The level of women’s tennis has improved dramatically. You have a situation now wherein 10 to 15 girls can win a Grand Slam event; that’s the reason we see different names. It was interesting to see a rivalry between two players; Martina and Chris Evert and Graf and Monica Seles. Martina, Chrissie, Steffi and Monica ruled for probably 20 years. It was time for a change and we had Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Serena and Venus. Now we have Serena and the others and so there are great stories on the table. At the end of the day you have stories of girls achieving their childhood dreams. In a way it makes it interesting.

There was a time when Americans dominated men’s tennis. There are hardly any now. It appears there will be a big vacuum after Serena and Venus leave the women’s scene?

I think some new women are playing extremely well. Madison Keys, who is coached by Lindsay Davenport, is sure to become a top-10 player. She has a massive game and also has the potential to win a Grand Slam as well. Then there is Sloane Stephens; she’s been dropping in the ranking list. She has beaten Serena Williams. She is very athletic and a powerful player.

So there is some potential. Among men, it would be difficult to follow Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Many years ago they had to follow Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe and now Sampras and Agassi. It was also difficult to get past Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But things will change and hopefully we will see another American coming up in the future.