Swish. Chop. Swish. Chop. Those are the sounds of Marion Bartoli preparing to showcase her formidable skill in returning serve, the talent that carried her into another Premier final on a night when her serve abandoned her again.
Initially appearing a mismatch before it began, the second semifinal in Carlsbad became anything but a mismatch in the end. At first, the world #160 dominated a top seed apparently aching from a hip injury, donating a flurry of double faults, and moving with caution. Once she survived her first service game, Chan grew in a confidence that surely had soared with each stunning triumph that she recorded this week. By contrast, double faults flowed freely from the staggering Bartoli, who yielded five in her opening service game soon found herself in a 5-0 quagmire. Although she could not erase those arrears, she began to establish her presence with a strong return game that forced Chan to save multiple break points before she delivered the coup de grace for the set.
Aggressively pumping her fist at every conceivable opportunity, the top seed did not delay in launching her counterattack with a love service game to start the second set and her first break of the qualifier’s serve shortly thereafter. A weak service game by Bartoli and penetrating returns by Chan would erase that lead immediately, but the Frenchwoman seized the initiative for good in the eighth game of the second set. Declaring her intent with an unanswerable return of serve on the first point, she broke at love with another return that cleaned the baseline, leaving her opponent with no feasible reply. Bartoli swept nine of the set’s last ten points (all but a double fault at triple set point) and consolidated the momentum shift with an opening break in the decider.
Seemingly doomed at that stage, Chan showed her courage in summoning her most impressive play since the first set to regain the break. But a double fault in her next service game squandered the potential surge, allowing Bartoli to relax on a night when she served more than 10 double faults for the third straight match. Chan continued to attack the double-fister throughout the third set, stepping inside the baseline to lash groundstrokes only a little less sharply angled than those of the top seed. While Bartoli appeared to move more effectively as the match progressed, she still found herself outmaneuvered at times by an opponent comfortable with every shot from every part of the court. Sometimes too eager to reach the forecourt, Chan nevertheless deserves credit for seeking to keep her opponent on the defensive as much as possible and for softening the Frenchwoman’s pace with precisely stabbed volleys and deft drop shots. Once Bartoli overcame her service woes at least somewhat, though, the plucky qualifier never seriously threatened. As the match unwound deeper and deeper into a third set, the top seed clearly possessed the edge in mental and perhaps physical fitness. Even when not at her healthiest, she was determined not to let this winnable match escape her against an opponent ranked 150 places below her.
Averaging 14 double faults per match this tournament, Bartoli somehow has navigated a route into the final. Against Cibulkova, however, she likely cannot expect such profligacy to go unpunished. The stingy Slovak has capitalized on almost all of her opportunities this week in winning each match in straight sets. On the other hand, Bartoli has needed three sets to win all three of her matches and must find a way to recover for her first day match of the tournament within a much shorter period of time. The top two seeds will contest the Carlsbad final on Sunday afternoon, each seeking her first title of the 2012 season. Neither has won as many tournaments as their talents would suggest, so both should enter the week’s climax motivated to capitalize on an opportunity to win a Premier tournament without conquering one of the WTA’s leading contenders.