For a former top player whose confidence is about as low as it can get, playing down in the minor leagues is a matter of measuring risk versus potential reward.
If 2014 Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard can put a few wins in the books at the $80,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla. this week, it will have been a risk that paid off. Even if the opposition isn’t top-level. On a five-match losing streak, the 23-year-old Canadian is in search of victories – anywhere – to help right the ship.
A first-round defeat against a player outside the top 600, which is what Bouchard was dealing with Wednesday, and the damage would have been immeasurable. She eked out a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory over American Brianna Morgan to quiet the demons a little bit longer.
For long periods during a match that lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours, some of the familiar patterns of Bouchard’s defeats the last year or two were in evidence. So many unforced errors on second shots before the points even had time to develop. Quick trouble on her own serve, which put her constantly under pressure.
In the end, the level of competition probably helped her. In both the first and third sets, at 4-4, Morgan flinched – just enough. The second set, in which Bouchard quickly went down 0-5 (three breaks of serve) ? Better off thrown in the nearby creek, never to be spoken of again.
Bouchard had two coaches on hand. Regular coach Thomas Hogstedt wasn’t in Monterrey last week when Bouchard was ousted in the first round, but was there Wednesday. Roberto Brogin, Bouchard’s original coach when she returned from Florida to Montreal in 2009 (and who substituted in Monterrey for Hogstedt) was there as well.
There was a good Wednesday afternoon crowd at the Kiwi Tennis Club, no doubt more than they usually get. Two sets of bleachers were set up on the side of the court opposite the clubhouse; the clubhouse-side seats were full. The veranda was buzzing; you could hear the clattering of dropped plates at a few inopportune moments.
Unlike the thousands – hundreds of thousands during her best moments – who watched on Canadian television when Bouchard was at her best, there were between 300 and 700 people watching the USTA’s lifestream of the match at various times.
There was no diva behaviour from Bouchard. She didn’t question calls, she didn’t show much frustration. Basically, she acted as though she was there to get some work done, and kept her head down. But you know her stomach had to be in knots, especially when things weren’t going well.
Morgan deserves credit for playing very well. She stood toe-to-toe with Bouchard in the rallies. There’s almost no way to know, given how obscure she is, whether she was playing over her head or simply is a better player than her ranking, given she spent the last four years in school. She has beaten some decent players over the last six months; she also has lost to some not-so-good ones.
Same age, different paths
She and Morgan were born just six days apart in 1994; Morgan on Feb. 19, Bouchard on Feb. 25. But they couldn’t have taken more different paths to get to the same court, on the same day and play as though there were little between them.
Bouchard played top-level junior tennis for five years, culminating in the Wimbledon junior title in 2012, Morgan played a total of … one ITF junior match, at a low-level event in California in 2010.
The native of Beverly Hills, Ca. has been out pounding the roads between ITF events in the U.S. on and off for seven years now; her ranking is lower now than it was four years ago.
Not that she was wasting her time. Morgan graduated in 2016 from the University of Florida, a highly-regarded women’s tennis school that had won back-to-back NCAA titles just before she arrived as a freshman. She posted a record of 107-33 in four years there after being given a scholarship almost by chance; there were no other offers. Morgan won a trunkful of awards that recognized both her tennis success and her academic prowess. She also received an NCAA post-graduate fellowship.
Bouchard wore Nike, which pays her millions every year. Morgan wore a collection of Nike pieces she probably bought at the sports shop and played with a racquet that was stencil-free, meaning no one was paying her to use it. She has earned a total of $16,000 in her career.
Everybody’s got game these days
And yet, when the two met on Court 3 at the Kiwi Tennis Club, they were dead even – until the very end, with Morgan’s level dropped and Bouchard raised her own just enough. The result tells you that there are a lot of unknown players out there who have game. It also tells you how much Bouchard is struggling at the moment, even if her ranking still sits at No. 56.
She will now play Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine, a 20-year-old who was once ranked in the top 150 but is currently playing on a special ranking after missing much of 2016 due to shoulder surgery.
Unlike Morgan, Kalinina brings impressive junior credentials. Ranked in the top-10 just three years ago, she was a U.S. Open girls’ singles finalist in 2014 and the Australian Open junior girls’ doubles champion earlier that year.
(All screenshots from the USTA Pro Circuit’s livestream)