"Man, this is blowing my story," one journo said from the row of desks behind me. We were sitting in the media center at the New Haven Open, deep beneath the seats of Center Court at the Yale University tennis facility. The TV monitor in front of us showed Marion Bartoli well on her way to trouncing Sloane Stephens in the first set, a set she'd win at 6-1.
"You want Stephens to win?" I asked him.
"Yeah, that's the story," he said. Stephens, 19 years young, up and comer, 46th in the world, upsetting 27 year old Marion Bartoli of France, world number 11 and 5th seed. It didn't look like it was going to happen.
But Stephens, sensing the restive pens of the Fourth Estate, gave us something to write about with a spectacular shut down of Bartoli's game in the second set. She out-powered Marion at the baseline. Marion's herky-jerky serve broke down, too. She had 6 double faults, including two in a row that gave Stephens a 4-0 lead. She served the Frenchwoman a bagel, fresh from New York City and the USTA training center in Queens. 6-0, Stephens.
Check out more photos of the New Haven Open here.
Bartoli's a veteran, though, and she flipped a switch and started upping her intensity. She's got zany ways of doing that. She does rapid-fire shadow swings while waiting to return. Before serving, she bounces on her toes, legs together and straight as a post, forward, back, forward, back, left, right, center. Bartoli got into Stephens' head, too, screaming "Come on!!" whenever she won a point, which was more and more often.
Bartoli had started out saying, "Allez!" but switched to English, to make sure Stephens got the message. Bartoli was not getting bageled again.
Bartoli saved 4 out of 5 break points that Stephens had against her in the 3rd. She clawed her way out of a 0-3 hole by clobbering Sloane's short balls for winners, and grabbed a 4-3 lead by breaking Stephens in the 7th game.
Haters, you all know that it ain't a break until you hold your next service game. In the see-saw rhythm that defined this match, Bartoli was flirting with being broken right back. Stephens had her at 15-40. She got there with amazing defense, skying back a deep, hard should-have-been-a-winner shot to her forehand. Marion, surprised that the ball was coming back, dumped her forehand into the net.
Two break points for Stephens. "Come on, Sloane, take it to her," said the man sitting two seats away from us along the baseline.
But Marion saved one break point with a one-two combo of hard serve/blistering cross-court winner off the short return, and saved the other with an ace out wide to Sloane's backhand -- a shot she had been going for, and missing, earlier in the match. One more big 100+ mile per hour serve to that same spot, and she was up, 5-3.
Stephens, who's like an iceberg on the court, quiet and stone-faced between points, was now looking toward her camp, both hands up in the air, like, "What the hell can I do? She's got me flummoxed!"
It was a funky way to end it, but it was okay," said Stephens.
Bartoli broke her at 0-40. 6-3. Game, set, match, to Experience. Youth immediately grabs her big red racquet bag and heads off the court, brushing right past a little girl who was holding out a paper fan for an autograph.
Outta my way, kid, I got unconverted break points to grieve.
"It was crazy," Stephens said of the wild momentum swings in the match. "I think we both played pretty well. It was a funky way to end it, but it's okay."
Yes, losing the third and deciding set at 0-40, after you had your opponent at 15-40 the game before, is funky. But Stephens insisted that she didn't let her level go down. She says Bartoli was able to ramp hers up.
I asked her if Bartoli's way of ramping up, with those shadow swings and fist pumps and extra-loud "COME ONs!" got into her head. This was their first meet-up.
Sloane's answer, in a roundabout way: "YEP."
"I haven't been on the pro circuit long enough" to get used to different players' methods, she said. "Different girls have different ways of doing that. It is distracting. But when you're playing, you can't let that get to you."
Stephens said some of stuff she saw Bartoli doing between points made her think, afterwards, "Did I just see her DO that?" She didn't elaborate on what made her jaw drop. I'd guess it was the hopping around Bartoli did before Sloane served. She even used the word "sportsmanship" somewhere in her remarks. I couldn't write fast enough.
"Did Stephens just accuse Bartoli of being unsportsmanlike?" one reporter asked another as the press briefing ended. We'll see, Haters, if the local papers have that as their headline tomorrow morning.
You know how us media types are. Always looking for the juicy story.