Marion Bartoli's near-perfect day

LONDON -- The big, flat-out hitters -- Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova -- were already chilling at home when the women's semifinals unfurled Thursday.

That they also were the top three seeds here at the All England Club says a lot about today's game. Big is almost always better, but this retro final four has something different: variety.

It happened on the men's side, when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal succumbed to crazed, net-crashing volleyers named Steve Darcis and Sergiy Stakhovsky. As Martina Navratilova wrote in her Thursday column in the Times of London, all four women's semifinalists could have played in the wooden-racket era.

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Marion Bartoli reached her second career Wimbledon final Thursday with a dominant performance.

Their average height -- about 5-foot-7 -- isn't all that far beyond the height of an average woman. They resist the urge to hit everything hard and harder; rather, they have a pleasing array of spins and speeds for any occasion. Even Sabine Lisicki, the most powerful of the group, unleashed a hail of drop shots in the previous round.

This was an extremely unlikely gang of four, marking the first time in Wimbledon's Open era history that each of the semifinalists was still looking for her first Grand Slam singles title. No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska was the only player among them ranked in the top 10. The first semifinal, between No. 15 Marion Bartoli and No. 20 Kirsten Flipkens, was the most unlikely of all.

In the end, an uber-aggressive Bartoli simply shattered Flipkens, whose body and mind seemed overwhelmed with the circumstances, 6-1, 6-2. It was over in 62 minutes.

It was one of the most one-sided semifinals here in recent years. In 2009, Venus Williams wrecked Dinara Safina 6-1, 6-0 before losing to sister Serena in the final.

"I had nothing to do against her," Flipkens said later. "I mean, she played amazingly well. I tried my slices. She didn't have any problem with that. I tried the drop shot. She got it. I played a passing, she came to the net. I tried a lob. I tried everything, actually, but it didn't work out."

Bartoli will now meet the winner of Lisicki in Saturday's women's final. Bartoli has yet to drop a set here and, get this: She got so little of a workout that she planned to go out and practice after her fulfilling her media obligations. "Oh, my gosh," she said afterward, "I just really can't believe it. Today I saw the ball like a fruit bowl. I was hitting the ball very cleanly from the start.

"I had some great passing shots, great lobs -- to do that in a semifinal at Wimbledon is just amazing."

Both women have a history here.

Six years ago, Bartoli advanced to the final (the only one ever in a major) before losing to Venus Williams. A decade ago, Flipkens won the Wimbledon junior girls title. They had never played each other before this Fourth of July extravaganza.

Bartoli, 28, is not a cookie-cutter player. The French woman has an unorthodox style, a stiff-armed serve and a rare two-handed forehand. Earlier this year, she fired her coach, who happened to be her father, Walter. Since then she has worked with, among others, former Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo.

Mauresmo, a throwback player herself, watched from Bartoli's box and had to be happy with what she saw. Bartoli was dominant, sometimes serving and volleying. As is her way, Bartoli took the ball extremely early and Flipkens had no answers.

Bartoli, in her 47th career Grand Slam, is bidding to become the player with the longest wait before cashing in her first major title. Jana Novotna won 1998 Wimbledon in her 45th Grand Slam appearance, the Open era record.

In her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal, Flipkens took down Petra Kvitova, the 2011 champion here. But there was an asterisk: Kvitova was struggling through a case of the flu. Her first career Grand Slam semifinal was a disaster.

Bartoli won the first set in style, with an ace. Flipkens, who looked dazed, didn't seem to realize that the set was over.

"Flustered would be an understatement," opined John McEnroe, analyzing the match for the BBC. "She doesn't look like she thinks she belongs out there."

It was too bad, because this was Flipkens' first chance, at the age of 27, to command the stage. For years, she played in the shadow of Belgian powers Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters and their combined 11 majors. Flipkens was ranked so low a year ago (No. 262), she couldn't even qualify to qualify here at Wimbledon. Life-threatening blood clots in her legs forced her to the sideline for two months.

Flipkens, who did not play in four of the past seven Wimbledons, including the past two, played with her right knee taped. After losing nine of the match's first 10 games, she called for the trainer.

She managed to break Bartoli's serve once, but it wasn't nearly enough. An overhead smash sent Bartoli to her knees and she was into her second career Grand Slam final. Only two other women from France have won the title here -- Suzanne Lenglen and Mauresmo.

"We are having so much fun outside the court," Bartoli said of Mauresmo. "Before the match, we were making jokes to each other."

If Bartoli manages to win this thing, she'll have the last laugh.

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