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Sabine Lisicki freezes while Bartoli plays it cool

Sabine Lisicki in tears after her defeat.
by Kate Battersby
Saturday 6 July 2013

On the hottest day yet of Wimbledon 2013, as 15,000 spectators on Centre Court baked in the scorching summer sun, one person within its confines froze. On the most important day of her professional life, Sabine Lisicki – a popular favourite to win the tournament since she snapped Serena Williams’ 34-match winning streak in the fourth round – was utterly immobilised by stage fright.

Her troublesome ball toss suddenly plagued her to disastrous effect. Her serve, crucial to her game, was so paralysed with tension that she could not hold it once in the first set. She could not dictate the rallies, or find the lines.

Instead, having begun her first Grand Slam final with a break of serve, the German was never in it again. For ten minutes at the start of the second set, she tried and failed to pierce her opponent’s serve as four break points came and went. At 1-5 she rallied but fairytales are few and the gulf was too great.

She never made it into the third set for another episode of last-gasp drama, as she had against Serena and then Agnieszka Radwanska in the last four.

The final was won 6-1, 6-4, by a player who kept her head, controlled the match and delivered an ace to win.

Many had forecast such a pattern would belong to Lisicki, but it was Marion Bartoli whose name was already inscribed on the Roll of Honour by the time she left Centre Court as the new champion.

“Tennis is joy,” said Lisicki this week, but even before the final was complete it was difficult to tell whether her cheeks bore rivulets of sweat or teardrops. So many times throughout the tournament Lisicki declared her unique love of Centre Court, and her delight in playing there – yet this time, the biggest stage and the biggest occasion somehow conspired to denude her of her weapons.

By defeating Williams she pulled off the greatest coup in a shock-packed Fortnight, but there will be no asterisk on the Roll of Honour to record it, no footnote in the Hall of Fame. The name of the game in the final was to win the tournament, and it is Lisicki’s agonising burden that she fell short because her game deserted her.

“I felt fine this morning but it’s an occasion you don’t get every day,” explained Lisicki. “It was completely new for me. The walk on court was different, with the flowers. Everything is different. It’s draining after two weeks, so many hard matches, if you have a tough draw like I did. Marion didn’t have to take out any huge player. Matches are different against top players. They’re heavier. They’re longer. You have more draining rallies. Mentally and physically I wasn’t at a hundred per cent. I took out three Grand Slam champions and went 9-7 in the third against Radwanska two days ago. Marion was fresher. I was a bit sad I couldn’t perform the way I can.”

Could Bartoli have defeated Serena at Wimbledon? It is a redundant question. Her job was to beat the player on the other side of the net, whoever that was, seven times in succession, and she did it. Lisicki did not.

Even in the most disappointing moments of her professional life, Lisicki’s face still bore her signature smile. Tears were never far away, but she smiled when Bartoli embraced her at the net. She smiled during the trophy photocall alongside Bartoli, before she stepped back, as runners-up must do. She smiled as she put her arm around Bartoli as the two left court. And she smiled as she stayed to sign autographs after Bartoli had gone, as if she could not bear to leave the court or her dream along with it.

“It was still a great tournament,” insisted Lisicki. “I’ve played my best tennis here. I took out the champion and runner-up from last year. That’s pretty big. This tournament definitely made me a better player. It was hard today but the experience will help me in the future. I still believe I can be champion one day."

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