Bartoli’s way – promoting clay

"Hopefully, with Rendez-Vous a Roland Garros, we will be able to inspire some youngsters and hopefully India will have a Grand Slam singles champion soon one day," says the former Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli.

As a commentator at the Australian Open, Marion Bartoli says she is having a good time.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

Marion Bartoli of France reacts after defeating Sabine Lisicki of Germany in the women's singles final of Wimbledon in 2013.   -  REUTERS

Marion Bartoli is the last French player to have won a Grand Slam title — she claimed the women’s singles crown at Wimbledon in 2013. After retirement, she took up fashion designing and her brand of jewellery is popular among former colleagues such as Serena Williams.

In a telephonic conversation with Sportstar from Melbourne, where she is commentating in the Australian Open, Marion speaks about being the brand ambassador of Rendez-Vous a Roland-Garros — a tournament dedicated to promote clay courts in India and provide a chance for under-18 players to compete at Roland Garros Junior draw in Paris where the champions will earn a wild card for the French Open. She also speaks about Serena Williams, the recent match-fixing allegations in tennis, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and the future of French tennis.

Excerpts:

Question: How is the energy at Melbourne?

Answer: It has been two weeks of some amazing tennis and we are going down to the final stages now. Have been commentating on the tournament and I am really enjoying my time here.

What is your take on the match-fixing allegations?

There are no names; there is nothing that we can speak about really. There was no fact. Everyone just spoke about it. I don’t believe that our sport has a problem with gambling. If you come to me with an agent — or to Martina Navratilova or Kim Clijsters or any players — and say, ‘Do you mind if I pay you?’, I will say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I mean, do you really think I will play to lose? We are not that type of persons and I am sure majority of players are not like that.

It is necessary to teach the juniors about how this can happen and how to deal with such situations. Until we have more facts and something to really talk about, I don’t think it is something we should start to talk about really.

Women’s tennis has been dominated by Serena Williams in the past few years. There are players like Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, but no one has been as powerful as Serena. What makes her invincible?

She knows so much. The U.S. Open semi-final, where she faced Roberta Vinci, was a shocker match. I know Serena extremely well. She is a good friend and she is wearing my jewellery even when she is playing (laughs) as some sort of lucky charm. I have played against her on the tour as well. The thing is she serves so well. That is her weapon, which no other female player possesses right now. You could see in the today’s match when she was 5-4, three aces in a row and she gave herself three match points.

The only time I was able to beat Serena was when I served my best, one of the best days of serving I probably had in my whole career. If I was able to hold my serve then I was able to break her, and then it went to a tiebreak and a second set.

Her serve is a weapon that no other female player in the history of professional tennis has had at this level. Lindsay Davenport was serving well, but not as consistently as Serena, and having that weapon she can take the game away from your hands completely.

Mentally, Serena is second to none in terms of concentration and willingness to win, and if she combines everything together, then you have the player she has been over the last decade.

 

She started to win Grand Slams back in 1999, and she is still winning in 2015. We are in 2016 and she is in the final. All these years, all the players she has been able to dominate, that is absolutely remarkable.

If you had one advice for players who play against Serena, what will it be?

We all know what to do (laughs). It is about conviction really. You have to find a way to hold your serve and you have to find a way to dictate the game. You have to find ways of closing up matches against Serena.

For example, Azarenka, twice in the final of the U.S. Open was leading by five games against Serena in the final set and still ended up losing it because when Serena knows she is about to lose, that is when she plays her best. Last year at Wimbledon, Heather Watson was almost winning the third set, but she was not able to win the match. It is never easy against Serena, you might be leading, you might be in the best position, but when she knows she is about to lose, that is when she plays her best.

First of all, you need to have the belief that you can beat her. There will be a lot to say — I cannot say in one sentence — but most important is to really believe that you can win, and also be ready to fight until the last point because until the last point has been saved, it is never over against Serena. Even if you are leading 5-0, you can still lose the match.

About the mendo you think Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer still have a Slam left in them?

Oh yes, for sure. For Rafael, Roland Garros. He is someone who has dominated it completely. For all tennis lovers, Roger is an amazing player to watch. The competition currently for him is tough — there is Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic. For me, he has one more shot at Wimbledon. If he can do it, he can do it there.

What do you think are France’s chances at the Rio Olympics?

In singles, it will be difficult but in doubles and mixed doubles, there are chances. Kristina Mladenovic is really someone who can bring a medal in both doubles and mixed doubles, especially with Caroline Garcia. They have started to play together at the Australian Open, and I think they are good players. If they get used to playing together, they can really bring home one medal. Also in mixed doubles, there are so many combinations; Kristina and Tsonga were supposed to play together in Australia but they did not. There are so many amazing players. I really think we can do something in the doubles and mixed doubles.

In women’s singles, I think we are too far to expect something. In the men’s side, there might be a chance. We had Gael Monfils reach the quarterfinals. Richard Gasquet was injured, so couldn’t play, but he is a very talented player. However, the competition on the men’s side is so fierce. To be able to beat Djokovic or Federer or Murray, even Raonic, is very difficult. In singles, it might be tricky but in doubles and mixed doubles, we have a shot.

What are France’s chances in the Fed Cup and the Davis Cup? You last won the Fed Cup title in 2003. In the Davis Cup, you were runners-up in 2014. France last won the Davis Cup in 2001.

We have some tough ties. In the Davis Cup, we play against Canada next and they have Raonic. We all know that he is in the semi-finals of the Australian Open and is in great form. However, they are going to play on clay (laughs). That is a totally different surface, and it will be a different story. I think it will favour France.

The Fed Cup will be in Marseille, where my father was born. We will be playing against a great Italian team, but I believe there is a massive chance. We have a fabulous and amazing captain, and with Amelie Mauresmo, we can really make a difference. It will be a tough tie, but I am sure we can make it through.

France has had pretty good tennis players over the last decadeMonfils, Tsonga, Gasquet etc. However, the last time a woman player won a Grand Slam title was when you won in 2013 at Wimbledon. Among men, it was Yannick Noah in 1983 (French Open). What do you think is the reason behind such a situation?

The competition on the men’s side has been so difficult. There was the era of Pete Sampras’ domination, then Roger Federer’s domination, then Rafael Nadal and now Novak Djokovic. That said, there have been some players who have been able to win some titles.

For the women, in the next few years it is necessary to break into the top 10 and then give ourselves a chance of winning a slam. We had players in the Grand Slam finals but they faced players who were able to beat them. If you keep creating chances — we have Monfils, Gasquet — then eventually we will have someone who will win a title.

How will Rendez-Vous a Roland-Garros help the future of the game in India?

I am extremely honoured to be named the ambassador of this event. It is an amazing opportunity to promote the red clay. I have played in India, but all the tournaments were on hard courts. So, it is necessary to make sure that the red clay is covered by the Indian players. It is something I am very honoured and privileged to represent. Roland Garros is looking to identify some new stars tomorrow, some young kids in India. It is great for me to be there and witness some rising stars and also the potential of the Indian players.

What is your assessment of the young Indian players you have witnessed so far?

Sania Mirza can be a huge driving force for women’s tennis in India. In India, there are a lot of male players — Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. Rohan Bopanna is playing some great tennis too. I truly hope I can find and inspire some young girls, let them discover the sport.

Indian players are extremely agile. Leander Paes is still playing. Mahesh Bhupathi has been successful with IPTL also.

Really great to see India embracing tennis and maybe we will get to see one Grand Slam singles champion soon. Sania has been winning so much in doubles.

Hopefully, with Rendez-Vous a Roland Garros we will be able to inspire some youngsters and hopefully India will have a Grand Slam singles champion soon one day.

What would be your advice to the young players who are participating in the event?

To enjoy. Probably they will be playing on proper clay court for the first time, to get used to this new surface, to new conditions and also to come to me and ask as many questions as they want (laughs).

I remember when, for the first time, I met Amelie Mauresmo, she came to my county and my parents drove me there and wanted me to ask as many questions as I could… how many hours should I practise, what I should do and what I should eat.

Here they can ask me whatever they want and I will be there to answer everything as much as I can.

As a person who grew up learning the sport on icy and uneven courts, how different are the present conditions from your time?

It is true that I learnt at a place where there was no proper tennis court. They gave me some special grass to train on, to get used to the bounce and get ready for good hand-eye coordination, which is absolutely crucial in tennis. Leander Paes has amazing hand-eye coordination as well as his partner Martina Hingis.

That is something which you can develop on clay more than on hard court. It is a great initiative that Roland Garros is bringing clay to India because you have different bounce on clay as it is an uneven surface, which helps you develop so many crucial qualities and it is crucial to learn it at a very early stage.