Commentary

Marion Bartoli won't ditch her dad

Originally Published: July 23, 2012
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

During points, Marion Bartoli is noticeable for her unorthodox strokes -- double-fisted shots off both sides and an elaborate and fluctuating service motion. Between points, she is even more noticeable for bouncing up and down, doing squats, taking imaginary swings and exhorting herself.

Courtside, it's easy to see where she gets it from. Somewhere on the sidelines, her father and coach, Walter Bartoli, resides. He will gesture, gesticulate and change seats. During on-court coaching breaks, he imparts a flow of information and instructions in rapid-fire French. During practice sessions, he directs his daughter through a series of complex drills and has been known to use various self-designed contraptions as training aids.

[+] EnlargeMarion Bartoli
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMarion Bartoli, the top-ranked Frenchwoman, will be sitting home during the Games.

It has all earned him a reputation as a bit of a crank, but when he speaks, there appears to be a method behind what can look like madness.

"My approach is quite different, because I'm not a tennis player," Walter Bartoli told ESPN.com in an interview last year. "A lot of the coaches are former tennis players, so they try to improve the game using the wrist, the arm. But I am not seeing those things the same way. And especially with Marion, because she plays double-handed, the physical training and the speed on the court from the feet and the legs are very important."

A doctor who gave up his profession to work with his daughter full time, his medical training continues to inform the way he carries out his role as coach.

"The shoulder, I view in a mechanic way," he said. "The shoulder of each athlete is completely different, so you need to take care of every specific thing, purely mechanically, for each athlete."

Then there is taking theory and research and applying it in practice.

As just a recreational player, he has had to learn the technical side of the game in more detail.

"In France, every part of the tennis has got a big theory," Walter Bartoli said. "In United States, the coaches are just working on the fight spirit of the players but not too much on the technique. In France, every part of the game, every technique; you can learn everything, you have a lot of books about that."

He also supplements his familiarity with the workings of the human body with more specific sports knowledge.

"I buy a lot of books from the university; I read them, and then I make my mix," he said. "OK, I think, if this drill is good for Marion, I will take it. Sometimes I take some drills also from Australia, because in Australia also they work a lot on physical training."

Whatever else, his technique has certainly earned the loyalty of his otherwise independent and strong-willed daughter, who is hardly cowed by her father like some other players have been.

"He's very funny because he's acting like a 3-year-old kid sometimes, honestly," she begins with affectionate exasperation, but she notes that in some ways "he's extremely focused and extremely adult" as well.

Despite famously sending her parents off in a fit of temper during a match at Wimbledon last year, Bartoli remains committed to her father and has refused to play Fed Cup until the French federation's rules relax enough to allow her to bring him along -- a stance that has cost her a spot at this week's Olympics. With players required to make themselves available for Fed Cup to be eligible for the Olympics, Bartoli will be sitting at home instead of donning a French uniform for the Games.

She will be the highest-ranked WTA player missing, and it is a particularly bitter pill this time around because the event is being held at Wimbledon, where she made the final in 2007. But Bartoli remains unwilling to change her mind, insisting instead that it is the French federation that should accommodate her needs, particularly since many other countries allow private coaches at team events. Newly appointed Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo has said she hopes to discuss the situation with Bartoli later this year.

Although it's hard to understand why the 27-year-old Bartoli can't simply commit to competing without her father a couple of times a year, a more conventional coaching setup would be a big change from the sheer individuality of the training she is used to. And the skepticism they have often faced along the way has only made them more wary of the establishment. Would she be better with some input from professional coaches? Quite possibly, but ever since she began playing, her game has been developed in response to very specific situations.

Her double-handed forehand came about because Bartoli, a natural left-hander, took up the game right-handed and had trouble hitting a one-handed forehand. Her club pro suggested she try two hands. "My dad was like, is it really possible to pick up with two hands?" Marion Bartoli recalled.

The pro suggested they watch the upcoming French Open final, in which a certain Monica Seles was playing. "We saw Monica hitting two-handed on both sides, and it looks very simple," Marion Bartoli said. "My dad told me, well, maybe just try and you'll see. I tried and right away, boom, the forehand was very good."

Bartoli traces her ability to take the ball early to the indoor courts she practiced on as a child, which had hardly any space behind the baseline and forced her to stand right up against the court. To make up for the lack of reach created by her two-handed shots, she plays with an extra-long racket and went so far as to switch frames midseason earlier this year, before the Sony Open in Miami.

Even her peculiar routines before serving are designed with a purpose.

[+] EnlargeWalter Bartoli
Oli Scarff/Getty ImagesAs unique as her father is, Marion Bartoli is resolute in keeping him on as coach.

"There was a lot of thinking behind that," she said. "It's really difficult to close out a game, to close out a set, to close out a match. And for me it's really important that I'm taking my mind out of the points, if it's a set point, game point or whatever, and just remain focused on the present and what I need to do physically."

During matches, her father will watch her closely and adjust her practice sessions.

"If I see that during the match sometimes the speed to go from the middle to the right side is not so good, then the day after, we change it a little bit, the drills, to try to have more speed," Walter Bartoli said.

Behind the training is a careful assessment of her strengths and weaknesses.

"She has very small arms," he said. "Some athletes, you can see Maria Sharapova or Daniela Hantuchova, have very long arms. So then it's impossible to generate speed from the balls when you have small arms like she has. You need to have more rotation from the core. Marion has very good reactivity with [her] foot, so we need to work [with] that, and also she has got very, very good vision, so she can see the ball I think 15 milliseconds before most of the players."

More than anything, however, he concentrates on the mental importance of the training process.

"But you know, it's very important to be confident in the way that you practice," he said. "She need to be very confident [in] what she did before the match and during the match."

What would happen to that confidence with someone else in charge? After winning seven titles, becoming a top-10 player and reaching a Grand Slam final, Bartoli doesn't want to find out, even if means missing the Olympics -- and doing a few extra knee bends before each serve.