Marion Bartoli lost in the final of the Paris Open on Sunday, but she has not lost everything. Over the past year the French player has been on something of a charm offensive with French fans. This week she has again scored many popularity points.
An unpopular French number one
For several years, Bartoli has flown the flag for women's tennis in France. Only Aravane Rezai overtook her temporarily in the WTA rankings, and then only for a few weeks.
But Bartoli has never enjoyed the popularity that her ranking and her results warranted. Reasons for that include her refusal to play in the Fed Cup, her individualistic attitude, her temper and her unwillingness to show her emotions.
Operation 'Get Popular'
Since the middle part of last season, Bartoli has made a conscious effort to change her behaviour. Aware of her lack of popularity and of the consequences, she started the charm offensive. The key to this new strategy: sharing.
She has become more expressive on the court: pumping her fist, physically expressing her desire to win on court, acknowledging the crowd and their part in her successes.
Her new approach has paid dividends as she has enjoyed the best season of her career. The new, open Bartoli reached the final in Strasbourg and the semi-finals at Roland Garros before victory in Eastbourne was followed by a place in the last eight at Wimbledon.
The icing on the cake
Last week at the Paris Open, she reached a new level of popularity in France by giving the French crowd everything that they wanted. She won matches with astonishing style, fighting back from a set down to win the quarter-final against Roberta Vinci then dominating the semi-final against Klara Zakopalova. Battling until the last point, she showed a newfound determination by winning matches nobody believed she could.
In the final, she lost with honour and gave a very professional speech with great dignity in which she showed respect for her opponent, accepted defeat, thanked those who worked behind the scenes, addressed the crowd and promised to come back stronger. Her inability to hide her tears touched all those who saw it.
Bartoli the outcast may finally become the person she dreams of being - a popular player.
Whatever her motivations are, what is most interesting about this new strategy for me is how it has either coincided with or facilitated a true improvement of her game.
Now ranked seventh in the world, she is coming closer to winning a Grand Slam. I am not sure there is anything lacking in her game now. This tournament has clearly showed the keys of her success and of her ability to play the most efficient tennis.
She showed two sides to her game during her final three matches in Paris. The first one, less efficient, is the one played since the last part of 2011: a more complete game, a better ability to handle long rallies that pushed her to play a less aggressive game.
The second came to the fore when she had her back to the wall and came out fighting. This is the one she's mastering the best and that makes her a true competitor: offensive on the return, refusing to move back, and playing forward to the net with authority. When she plays like this, few can match her. Only her second serve needs to really improve.
If Bartoli can continue to feed off her new relationship with the crowd and maintain this determined side of her game, success cannot be too far away.