Some tennis players make comebacks because they need the money, others because they miss the adrenalin of competition. But, for Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon champion, next week’s return is about rediscovering peace of mind.
Bartoli — who is scheduled to play a Tie Break Tens event in New York on Monday alongside the Williams sisters — has hardly enjoyed a peaceful retirement since she quit the tour 41/2 years ago. She has endured an abusive relationship with an (unnamed) boyfriend, as well as suffering such dramatic weight loss that she was banned from participating in the Legends event at Wimbledon in 2016 in case her heart failed.
But tennis is Bartoli’s first love, and in the coming weeks she will return to the game that gives her security. The court is the one place the demons cannot reach.
“Psychologically I suffer very much from different issues, most of them personal,” Bartoli told The Daily Telegraph. “It’s been a very difficult part of my life. Some days are tougher than others, but tennis makes me happy.
“I feel confident between those lines. That’s why I wanted to come back again as a pro. I wanted to feel positive for my mental health, to succeed and achieve things. That’s why this comeback goes beyond a simple love of the game. I think it will help me recover, psychologically.”
Bartoli has been through many trials since she lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish on Wimbledon’s Centre Court five years ago, having crushed Germany’s Sabine Lisicki in the final. She seemed bulletproof then, even shrugging off commentator John Inverdale’s notorious suggestion that she wasn’t “a looker”. When Inverdale tried to apologise at the Champions Dinner, she cut him short by saying: “Don’t worry about that, what do you think of my heels?”
But within six weeks, Bartoli had announced her retirement, telling shocked reporters in Cincinnati that: “I have pain everywhere after 45 minutes or an hour of play … I just can’t do it any more.”
Physical injuries were only the beginning. As Bartoli left the tour that day in August 2013, she was looking forward to a more settled existence — one in which she could live and love as a civilian, without packing a suitcase every few days. She spoke of “a lot of excitement to come … as a woman, as a wife, as a mother.”
Yet her next serious relationship came close to breaking her. Bartoli started dating a new boyfriend the following year, only for their love affair to turn emotionally abusive. He taunted her about her figure and compared her negatively to other women. It was the starting point for a period of dramatic and dangerous weight loss — a trend that she says accelerated when she contracted a virus while visiting India early in 2016.
Doctors would later tell her that the bug resembled H1N1 swine flu, only stronger. In any case, her immune system had already been compromised by her weakened physical and emotional state.
Bartoli still finds it difficult to talk about the man in question — whom she has not named. Apart from her physical struggles, during which her weight plummeted to 90 pounds at her lowest point, he even tarnished her relationship with tennis by making her play doubles matches in which he had a strong partner and she a weak one.
“This is something very personal,” she said. “It was very difficult. He took away a lot of things from me and I need to get those things back, to be confident in myself, to be happy to be alive, to find the joy in every single day.
“There were women sending me tweets and Facebook messages when I first spoke about it [in a L’Equipe interview in January]. I don’t want to be a role model but if I can help somebody find the strength to leave an abusive relationship, that’s great. It’s not right to be treated that way. But everyone goes through things differently. My way of getting my life back on track is through sport, through being an athlete, through feeling adrenalin again and trying to win matches. That’s what I feel defines me.” Bartoli’s painful experiences since her retirement make this an unusual comeback. Success or failure will be determined less by her results, and more by how the contest makes her feel. She wants to win, of course, and is not intending to spend the coming months bumping around second-tier events in small-town America.
But there is more at stake here than trophies, and she appreciates that the road could be a hard one, especially as she has had to rebuild muscles that wasted away to the point of uselessness in 2016.
“At 33, I will be a bit slower than I was at 27,” says Bartoli, who has been offered a wild card into the WTA event in Monterrey early next month. “It will be more difficult to recover, too, so there are a lot of maybes and question marks. But I feel I can be ready. Is it going to be enough to compete as I used to? I have no idea, but for me the point is to prove that even though I was on the brink of dying, I can still compete on the world stage.
“The worst time was when I had the whole weight loss at the beginning of 2016. I had no idea why I couldn’t eat any more, and it took time to find my health completely back. I ran the New York marathon at the end of 2016 and after that I was at home in Dubai sleeping every single day for 20-something hours. It took me patience and time to stay awake for 12 hours in a row.
“So, whatever I will face on the tennis court is nothing compared to what I have already experienced.
“Before, when I played a difficult match, I felt a great weight of pressure. It was something that stretched me a lot and it was scary.
“But what scared me before will not scare me again. Tennis is nothing compared to 2016, when things were really scary every single day. When you have come close to dying, that puts a lot of perspective in to your life.”