Monday, August 3, 2009

Marion and Dr. Bartoli

Lately I’ve been thinking about coaches and their students, and about how come some partnerships are so ideal while others seem to flounder for a while before the player moves on to another mentor. And as part of this current preoccupation, I want to introduce the fifth change that I would like to see in tennis [in keeping with the series I announced at the start of this year -- no I have not forgotten!] I would like to see a better introduction to the people hired to keep our favorite players in top form.

For example, the Tennis Channel could run in-depth profiles of coaches like Larry Stefanki (King-maker extraordinaire). Or Paul Annacone, who used to coach Sampras and Henman and is now the head coach at the LTA. And I would like to see a profile on Dr. Walter Bartoli, coach of his daughter, Marion Bartoli.

I was stunned by the way the commentators were crying down Dr. Bartoli yesterday. Not because I disagreed with what they were saying -- au contraire -- but because one so rarely expects such a high level of honesty from ESPN-hired commentators covering a match.

But those commentators held nothing back. One described her horror at watching Dr. Bartoli put his daughter through the paces of warming up for a match. It sounded almost as if Marion burns up so much energy in the bizarre preparation ritual that by the time she gets to the court, there is often little left. And they subtly blamed Dr. Bartoli for Marion’s repeated physical injuries. One said that she only lasts a few matches and then she has to call in sick. Another commented on the amount of fines she will now have to pay for her frequent time-outs for medical attention. And so on.

So the fifth change I would like to see in tennis is to get to know some of these coaches better. I’d like to know why we should trust them. I’d like to know what qualifies them to be the coaches of the top tennis players in the world. And I would very much like to know how coaches like Dr. Walter Bartoli balance the roles of coach and father. Not to mention coach, father, and trainer. Not to mention coach, father, trainer and travel companion. And did I mention chief photographer? The man seems to play it all.

But in spite of the criticism of the team of commentators yesterday, Marion finally pulled it out against Venus Williams at Stanford. It was an amazing final. As the crowd roared its approval of Venus winning the second set, I grabbed a bag of Ann’s House snacks (no more popcorn for me, I’m trying to keep in the Zone), and sat down to munch and flinch. And I have to tell you that in spite of the negative concerns of the commentators, I saw a young woman who was taking it to Venus Williams with everything she had, granted in between moments of nervous tension.

Sure Marion starts hopping around like a jack rabbit when she is receiving serve. And speaking of serve, have you ever seen such a jittery wind-up? And she has always been a bit on the chunky side. But the girl can play. She matched Venus backhand for backhand throughout the match. In fact the only chance Venus had of winning was to keep coming into net and taking those massive swinging volleys out of the air. Which she did a lot of the time, but not enough of the time. And wasn’t it sweet that one of Marion’s few ventures to net ended up being the point of the day? I loved it. Then again, I have admitted before that I love Marion Bartoli. My head picked Venus to win this yesterday but my heart was all Marion’s. And my heart is happy.

But my concerns about Dr. Bartoli as his daughter’s trainer and coach remain. The gist of the criticism yesterday seemed to be that he does not distinguish adequately between these two roles, and that he does things as a trainer that would leave a coach speechless with horror, and vice versa. As possible proof of this criticism, Marion called in sick today to the tournament in LA. Maybe it’s time to do an empirical study to examine whether she is more frequently injured or takes more medical time-outs than other players. It seems to me that Dr. Bartoli’s methods can and should only be challenged with solid empirical data of the kind that, as a trained professional himself, he could fully comprehend.

Bank of the West Classic Day 7

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