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Can Bartoli Really Return To The Top?

Serena Williams is not the only Grand Slam-winning woman making a comeback this week. Marion Bartoli made her first appearance on a high-profile tennis court (if not in competition, then at least in high-class exhibition) for nearly five years, when she appeared alongside Serena at the latest Tie Break Tens tournament in New York. However, while Serena is making her return to the tour proper at Indian Wells, Bartoli is taking a little longer before competing in a Masters Tournament. Instead of Indian Wells, she is hoping to return in Miami, the second event of the so-called “Sunshine Double”. That is hardly surprising, because even though Serena is returning to tennis after giving birth, Bartoli’s comeback is likely to be even more arduous.

It was a major surprise last autumn when Bartoli announced that she was coming out of retirement to return to the WTA Tour. Since she had won her one and only Major at Wimbledon in 2013, before retiring almost immediately, she had experimented with a number of different paths, including fashion. And she was not lost to tennis, as she had become an impassioned and insightful commentator on the women’s game, which she appeared to enjoy watching from afar.

Obviously watching all that tennis whetted her appetite to play again. Having trained throughout the winter, her appearance in New York, where she acquitted herself reasonably well, was a toe in the water, in preparation for her anticipated appearance in Miami. And Bartoli is certainly thinking big. She has publicly expressed the hope that she will not only challenge for Majors again but also inspire France to long overdue Fed Cup success, with a third target being the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

It will be absolutely fascinating to see what kind of comeback Bartoli makes. She says that committing to playing tennis again has made her feel “alive again” and such a feeling is to be celebrated. And other women have come back after a long time out of the game to compete again at the very highest level.

The best example is Belgium’s Kim Clijsters. Having struggled in the shadow of her compatriot, Justine Henin, for much of the early noughties, Clijsters finally won a Major – the 2005 US Open – and within two years announced her retirement from the game. What followed was truly extraordinary, as she first became a mother and then in 2009 returned to tennis and won yet another Major, the 2009 US Open. And not just one. She followed up her 2009 US Open victory with two more Majors (the 2010 US Open and the 2011 Australian Open) before she finally, and this time very contentedly, retired again in 2012.

However, Clijsters’s situation was very different to that of Bartoli’s. In the first instance, Clijsters claimed that becoming a mother had been a major reason why she did so well on her return. Presumably, motherhood had removed much of the pressure that had previously held her back and so she was finally able to hit freely and do justice to the enormous talent that she had always undoubtedly possessed.

Bartoli, fine player though she is, was never quite in the class of Clijsters. The highest she reached was No. 7 in the world, whereas Clijsters was (albeit briefly) a World No. 1. In addition, when Bartoli won Wimbledon in 2013, it was not the culmination of many years of knocking at the Major doors. She had only ever been in one Major final before (also at Wimbledon, in 2007) and although she deserves enormous credit for defeating Serena Williams in the semi-final, her opponent in the final, Sabine Lisicki, almost beat herself, such were her nerves. Certainly, Lisicki has never been the same player again, and now languishes outside the World Top 100.

Bartoli made the most of her opportunity at Wimbledon in 2013 and then made the absolutely perfect retirement from the game, at her very peak. She herself said that it would be impossible to beat what had happened at Wimbledon. The fear is that it may prove even more impossible now, five years on, with Serena still likely to be at her imperious best and a whole host of young, hard-hitting contenders, from Ostapenko to Wozniacki, ready to blast her off court.

There is also a more serious fear. By her own admission, Bartoli’s self-esteem and self-image have often been fragile. In discussing her time out of tennis, she openly referred to a dysfunctional romantic relationship that had damaged her self-confidence. The worry is that if she cannot get near the heights she scaled nearly five summers ago, her self-esteem and self-image will be hit again.

On the other hand, she can draw strength and comfort from the fact that she is already a Major winner, and if she does nothing else in the game and her return ultimately proves unsuccessful, she will still be a Major winner. And having won a Major once, there is still a chance – however slim – that she might just do it again. If she does, Suzanne Lenglen will finally have a rival as France’s Queen of Tennis.

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