June 13, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

Bouchard’s big slump a series of unfortunate events

Eugenie Bouchard took the court Tuesday in Istanbul, hoping for yet another fresh start.

No crop tops or baby-doll dresses. She was sober and monochromatic, sporting capri-length stretch leggings to stay warm. Her groundstrokes looked perfect and crisp during the warmup.

Once the first-round match began against No. 97 Jana Cepelova of Slovakia, it all fell apart.

The 23-year-old was blanked 6-0 in just 17 minutes on the way to a 6-0, 6-4 defeat that extends her winless streak to five tournaments.

The unforced errors, the split-second hesitation when came time to pull the trigger, the awkwardness moving into the forecourt, all of it was on garish display. Cepelova never had to leave her comfort zone.

Winless streak now at six

The Canadian’s last victory in a Tour-level event now dates back to a second-round win over No. 81 Shuai Peng of China at the Australian Open. That was more than three months ago. There were few signs in Istanbul that she is taking even baby steps in the right direction.

Three years ago, right around this time, Bouchard defeated the same Cepelova in two tight sets to clinch a Fed Cup tie for Canada against Slovakia. Less than a month later, she won her first (and only) WTA Tour title in Nürnberg, Germany and made a run to the semi-finals of the French Open.

The spring and summer of that year were heady, as she rose to the top five. But the honeymoon period was briefer than we remember. In August at her hometown tournament in Montreal, she had an on-court meltdown against American Shelby Rogers and lost 6-0, 2-6, 6-0.

There was a seismic shift that day. It was as though the water bubble burst and, she’s still mopping up the collateral damage.

The weight of expectations, her own and those of her legion of fans, her sponsors and the WTA Tour, came crashing down – hard. Add in the concussion suffered at the US Open in 2015 just as she appeared poised to bounce back, a number of injuries and the revolving cast of Team Genie, and it’s an avalanche.

Theories abound about how Bouchard could have fallen so far, so fast. There’s never just one reason in cases like this. She would have found a solution by now if there were.

But at the top level of professional tennis, it’s all about ensuring every possible little detail is maximized. There are four main areas in which she has fallen short, not all through fault of hers.

The physical game

Under-reported during Bouchard’s struggles was the effect of the departure of full-time physical trainer Scott Byrnes. The affable Aussie signed on shortly before she won in Nürnberg in May 2014; he left just over a year later and now works with American Madison Keys.

Until January, when Cassiano Costa came on board, a cast of characters rotated in that role – or there was no one at all. The effects of a lack of a full-time trainer to care for a body that isn’t particularly sturdy, boasting a technique that isn’t overly forgiving, have shown.

Bouchard began the season with a shoulder issue. The recurring abdominal situation flared up. The process with Costa of rebuilding a body strong enough to withstand the rigors of professional tennis is taking time.

The coaching carousel

From Saviano, to no one, to Diego Ayala, to the unfortunate six-month Sam Sumyk era, to various hitting partners, to Canadian Fed Cup captain Sylvain Bruneau pitching in. From Thomas Högstedt, to Saviano again along with the capable Cyril Saulnier and back to Högstedt – no Saulnier this time.

Have we left anyone out?

Högstedt has missed several tournaments in recent weeks. He wasn’t in Acapulco, her first tournament since Australia. He wasn’t in Monterrey the week right after early losses in Indian Wells and Miami made March a complete write-off.

He’s not in Istanbul this week, either.

When Bouchard asked the experienced Swede to return for 2017, he was up front that there would be weeks he was unavailable due to other commitments. Bouchard had this type of arrangement with Saviano, who has a tennis academy to run and who dislikes travel. Unlike the first go-round with Högstedt, when it became a deal-breaker, she seemed to have accepted those terms.

But Bouchard couldn’t have anticipated how badly this year would turn.

Roberto Brogin, the Tennis Canada coach who long ago worked with her in Montreal, has stood in. She knows him but despite his ability and experience, he’s a completely different voice. She no longer is the 16-year-old junior she was then, with relatively little baggage and everything ahead of her.

No distractions allowed

You see it in the very best: nothing distracts them from the prize.

The biggest distraction for Bouchard hasn’t been her alleged “modeling career”. As she herself has pointed out, there is surprisingly little of that. The amount of time she spends on social media is probably far less than the average 23-year-old. Even the Sports Illustrated swimsuit suit took place in a period of 30 hours after her early loss at the U.S. Open, before her next tournament in Quebec City two weeks later.

The promotional activities around the tournaments are a different story. Those are the weeks she should be tunnel-focused on winning tennis matches. Draw ceremonies, off-court promotions, helicopter rides, Desert Smash, Taste of Tennis, fancy sponsors’ events. How often do you see the likes of Serena or Maria Sharapova at those?

The SI magazine premiere and the Twitter date and all that? She should have been in Dubai and Doha, capitalizing on the surprising momentum she gained Down Under. Or training – as she originally said she planned to do after Australia to catch up after a shortened off-season.

It seems Bouchard can’t say no to an opportunity to smile and pose in a pretty dress. No doubt the tournaments and sponsors love her cooperation. But all of it distracts from the job at hand. It’s also no longer a novelty; she should be well over it by now.

And then there is the lawsuit filed against the USTA in the wake of the locker-room accident that caused her concussion. She was perfectly within her rights to file it. The fact that she doesn’t need the money, and that it was just another distraction to add to an already head-turning life, were good reasons not to do it.

A year and a half in, the case is ongoing. Just Monday, her lawyer announced his client would be unable to participate in a settlement conference before the judge – not even via Skype. So that is off the table; the lawyers are scheduling a third round of private mediation. Imagine if it all comes to a head just as she tries to salvage her season at the final Grand Slam of the year in New York.

Falling behind

Bouchard rode a wave of insouciance during her finest hours, along with the unassailable confidence that comes from winning match after match. The technical and tactical holes in her game hardly were hidden from view. But she attacked so well, opponents couldn’t find them often enough.

She felt unbeatable, and carried herself that way. With her blonde good looks, Bouchard certainly got more than her share of hype. The WTA bet the house on her as its present and future marquee star.

All of that is added motivation for opponents who must go about their business in relative anonymity. And the more everyone saw it, the easier it was to dissect her fairly predictable game.

As her aura dimmed, it got even easier. That’s hardly a phenomenon limited to Bouchard; on the men’s side, the opponents’ increased belief has been obvious as Rafael Nadal and then Novak Djokovic struggled with health, motivation and confidence.

As the opponents’ confidence increased, Bouchard’s decreased in equal proportion. For a player like her, confidence is everything.

Tough times call for tough measures

Between the short off-seasons, the physical woes and the coaching substitutions, there has no structure in place to make the kinds of adjustments and improvements Bouchard needs to make just to keep up. Fresh faces join the tour every year, all as fearless and confident as she once was. Her opponents are getting better, too. She has stood stock-still.

It would have been more surprising, in the end, if Bouchard had made a big comeback this year. It would have been a minor miracle.

The consensus is that Bouchard works hard when she’s training. The question is whether she’s on court working hard as often as she needs to be. She doesn’t have the natural talent or power of her more gifted adversaries. It’s all hard work. She can’t afford to shortchange herself there.

The inner drive to thrive

What no one can know is whether the drive, the desire to be the best still burns fiercely inside her.

She already is a wealthy young woman. No doubt she could craft a fine, if rather shallow living capitalizing on her huge social-media popularity. It’s a low-risk option that must seem hugely tempting in her darkest moments, when everything on the tennis court just seems too hard and the light at the end of the tunnel too dim and distant.

Bouchard is trying; she tried to get a wild card into the hard-court event in Bogotá, Colombia after Monterrey. They were all spoken for. So she took two steps down the ladder and played her first ITF-level tournament in four years, at Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

That she struggled mightily in her two victories against lowly ranked players was not a detail she could  dwell on. A win was a win. In the third match, the “what the hell am I doing in this place” blues seemed to hit; she lost badly to American Victoria Duval.

Högstedt returns

Högstedt will return for Madrid and Rome, through the French Open and likely all of the grass-court season with the exception of the tournament in Mallorca. That stability, and the Swede’s firm belief that she can prevail, can only help. If it doesn’t, she clearly has a decision to make.

She has gone back to the Babolat racquet model she used last year, after a switch to a more powerful stick turned out to do more harm than good. When you lack confidence in your strokes with as little margin as she has, the ball will fly on you. When you play with a more powerful racquet, they’ll fly even more.

It’s hard to fathom a 23-year-old would give up on a dream she’d had since she was nine years old just because the going got tough. Especially when there are so many years left and he hasn’t quite made that dream come true.

It happens, though. Bouchard didn’t have the hardscrabble road coming up that proven champions like Serena, Sharapova and even Victoria Azarenka had. They set their supreme toughness in stone early; their ambition and drive rarely have flagged. That Bouchard didn’t have to scramble anywhere else but on the tennis court to get to the top, it turns out, less than ideal preparation for where she is now: in a fight for her tennis career.

She didn’t create a lot of good karma around her when things were going well. Those who took a dislike to her – and they are a legion – are almost rubbing their hands in glee at what they consider that karma coming back and biting her.

It’s well known that she’s stubborn. Only time will tell if Bouchard has the desire, the toughness, the dedication and the tunnel vision to reclaim ownership of it.

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