The noggin. There is no accounting for it. How many Wimbledon titles have been lost and won on the power of the mind?
So often, women’s Centre Court finals are reduced to meltdowns of one sort or another, a sliding scale of nerve mismanagement. It’s the brain’s version of stumbling on its shoe laces.
Sabine Lisicki is not the first to be stricken by a paralysis that cruelly allowed her to play but not to compete effectively in the women’s singles final against Marion Bartoli.
Occasionally rising above it, but never for long, the 23rd seed was never in the match, her minor success on a day of mishaps and despair was only to avoid total humiliation.
Lisicki had earned admiration for her mental fortitude and the way she prised Serena Williams from the draw earlier in the tournament. But the emotion that endeared her to the crowd during earlier rounds diminished her: she lost to 15th seed Bartoli 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and 21 minutes.
At one point in the second set, the German was so overcome with emotion that tears came. Not even putting the racquet to her face could hide the public unravelling and her realisation that she could do nothing about it.
Bartoli, who gives the lie to any notion of a female shape for tennis, where outlier, amazonian physiques often excel, brought a variety of idiosyncrasies to the final. A stocky 5’7’’, she played a punchy two-handed style off both wings with sprint routines between points, which certainly celebrated difference. Her short back-swing came from the indoor court where she used to practise, the lack of a run off behind the baseline forcing her to develop a truncated swing.
“I’ve never been afraid of being special. Never,” Bartoli said. “I think it’s kind of boring to be like everyone.”
She had endured a miserable 2013 before this fortnight, failing to pass the third round of any tournament, while her coaching relationship with her father Walter caused a dispute with the French Federation and resulted in her not attending the Olympic Games.
She reached the final here in 2007. Not unlike Lisicki, she seemed fraught with nerves, with Venus Williams taking advantage to win.
The early exchanges this year also caused some turmoil with Bartoli: at the beginning of the match she double-faulted twice in a row to give Lisicki an early break. But that was that and she plundered the first set 6-1 before racing to 5-1 up in the second set as Lisicki hit long, wide and into the net.
Lisicki's mini-revolution in the second set pulled the score line into some shape, but Bartoli's tight play allowed her to serve for the match at 5-4. Not known for her serve, she delivered three perfect games for 40-0 then aced Lisicki for championship point.
Steffi Graf’s win 14 years ago was the last German triumph at Wimbledon, while Bartoli is the first French player to win here since Amélie Mauresmo did it in 2006.
“I was a bit sad that I couldn’t perform the way I can,” said Lisicki afterwards.
In the aftermath of the final, the issue of women playing five-set finals in grand slams arose once more. Had Lisicki had another two sets to shed her nerves and collect herself, maybe she could have forced a better game onto Bartoli.
“Not necessarily, no,” said Lisicki.
But it is an issue that will run. Serena Williams said earlier in the tournament that she was game for women to play five-set finals to make them less of a shootout. The US Open at the end of next month is likely to be the forum for that debate to continue.
“You dream about it every single day. You think about it every single day. You achieve something that you dream about for maybe a million of hours,” said Bartoli. Lisicki too – and it’s why she perished.