June 22, 2024

Open Court


Off-court grudge produces enthralling tennis for Bouchard and Sharapova

Genie Bouchard did plenty of talking off court about Maria Sharapova’s return to tennis after her 15-month doping suspension.

On the Manolo Santana stadium court Monday night in Madrid, she let her racquet do all the talking.

The 23-year-old Canadian channelled her 2014 self on every level and defeated Sharapova 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, to move into the third round of the Madrid Open.

Wednesday, she will face Germany’s Angelique Kerber, who returns to the No. 1 ranking next week but who has a 2-4 career record against the Canadian.

“It was a very tough match, not only physically and tennis-wise, but also mentally and emotionally,” Bouchard told the media in Madrid. “Each point was a battle from the first point. It was really a fight. I’m just proud that I came out stronger in the end and held it together in the third set.”

There was an outsized amount of hype leading up this second-round women’s match. Not much of the hype was about the actual tennis.

Expecting drama, not great tennis

Most expected Sharapova to roll over a player who has been a good “get” for a lot of lower-ranked players this season – indeed, for the last couple of years. Most expected the Russian to have a little extra motivation, given those comments. Most expected Bouchard wouldn’t even make the second-round date at all given she had not won a WTA Tour-level match since January.

It turned out Bouchard had more motivation than anyone knew. She felt she was swinging her racquet for many.

“I was actually quite inspired before the match because I had a lot of players coming up to me privately wishing me good luck, players I don’t normally speak to, getting a lot of texts from people in the tennis world that were just rooting for me,” she said. “So I wanted to do it for myself, but also all these people. I really felt support.”

That it took such an extraordinary set of circumstances for the lone wolf to feel a little warmth in a locker room she has never welcomed, nor has been welcomed in,  is subject matter for an entirely different dissertation.

No backing down

Bouchard’s body language was positive throughout, even when she blew a couple of love-40 leads on Sharapova’s serve in the third set.

The Canadian said she felt the significance of it was that “most people have my opinion, and they were just maybe scared to speak out.”

“Most” is probably stretching it. But Bouchard has not backed down from her original remarks. She stood by them again Tuesday.

The victory, her first in five tries against Sharapova, was a combination of several factors.

There was that additional motivation. There also was the big spotlight that shone upon this match. Bouchard’s best moments back in 2014 came precisely because she rose to the challenge on the big occasions, at the biggest tournaments.

For Sharapova, just the start

On the other side of the net, there was an opponent still feeling her way back after a long absence.

Sharapova’s effort in reaching the semi-finals in her first tournament after serving her doping suspension was impressive. Now comes the job of keeping up that effort physically and mentally, week after week, during the meat of the tennis season.

Sharapova fought as she always does. But by the end she was making a lot of errors she probably won’t make when she has more matches under her belt.

The Russian had a difficult first-round match against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni Sunday. At times late in the second set, she looked a little panicked.

She turned on the afterburners and ran away with that one. But she may have used up some of the rocket fuel she ended up needing against a surprisingly resistant Bouchard.

“There’s no way to train but be a part of it, like I was today, and the previous tournament. To find myself in those situations, come up with the goods… You know, I could have easily gotten out of the match. I got myself in a position to finish, and I didn’t,” Sharapova said. 

Better legs, better defense

Bouchard looks to have gained a little healthy weight. And clearly she has  worked her legs and endurance; she did a lot of running and defending Monday night and looked by far the fresher of the two by the end.

Defence is not the Canadian’s strength, but there weren’t many options. Sharapova plays offense better than she does. For long patches of the two-hour, 51 minute match, the Russian hit her off the court.

Often enough, though, Bouchard chased down that one extra ball and forced Sharapova to hit that one extra ball. Cumulatively, it seemed to pay dividends by the end. Sharapova coach Sven Groeneveld stressed the importance of putting more spin on her ball when he came on court to consult. He urged her to hit with more margin. He urged her not to go for winners all the time.

But perhaps she felt she had to. It was the most difficult match physically Sharapova has has played so far.

Coach Högstedt returns

Sharapova is out of Madrid, but she can try again next week in Rome as the comeback continues.

At times, Bouchard showed better anticipation than she typically does. Credit for that has to go to her coach, Thomas Högstedt.

Högstedt wasn’t there for Bouchard’s last two tournaments in Monterrey and Istanbul. But he’s back for this one. And after coaching Sharapova for several years, the veteran Swede has some inside knowledge of Sharapova’s patterns. Even after a 15-month absence, the Russian still plays basically the same game. So the intel remains relevant.

Had Bouchard not ended her losing streak in her first-round win over Alizé Cornet, her confidence might still have been at too low an ebb for this awaited encounter with Sharapova. So that helped as well.

Most of all, it seemed the fire was there. In her first-round match, Högstedt felt Bouchard’s poor attitude in the second set allowed her opponent to maintain belief in victory.  This time, even when she failed to convert twice from love-40 on Sharapova’s serve, she stayed the course. Even when Sharapova had love-40 on Bouchard’s serve, she stayed the course. She just kept running, and fighting.

“Obviously, there was a lot going on besides tennis in this match. As soon as I stepped on the court, I really just wanted to make it about tennis. We both did that. We just battled our hearts out, I think,” Bouchard said.

Just here for the handshake

The handshake – the moment tennis fans wait for whenever there is friction in any tennis match – didn’t disappoint. The interpretations on social media of what it all meant varied depending on who your rooting interest was, and how much you wanted it to mean.

The handshake was firm, the gaze lingered a second longer than average, after a tough battle.

But the grip was firm, lingering a little longer than it normally might as the two women looked firmly into each others’ eyes. Bouchard was stoic; Sharapova had a slight smile on her face.

Obviously, there was a lot more going on besides tennis, to quote Bouchard. But somewhere in there there had to be an appreciation from both sides about what a righteous battle it was. An unspoken conversation between fellow athletes that the mere mortal probably can’t understand, and that the athletes themselves probably couldn’t verbalize.

THAT look

There is a look Bouchard gets when she’s zoned in, 120 per cent committed. Her eyes get dark as coals as the pupils dilate to the maximum. She has not had that look often in recent years. The last time it was truly there was last summer, at the Olympics in Rio.

She had it Monday night, in spades.

With a new challenge in less than 48 hours against Kerber, she needs to not only keep it, but use it. There will be a natural letdown. Everything will almost be back to normal.

As much talk as there may be in the next 24 hours about how Bouchard is “back”, the reality is that she’s only as good as her next match, not her last match.

“Overall, with the whole mental aspect, just fighting and playing almost a three-hour match, the physical battles … Everything together, for sure, it’s one of my more proud matches in the past couple of years,” Bouchard said. “I was working hard that whole time, just waiting for it to come. Okay, it didn’t happen this week, it will happen next week. Okay, it didn’t happen this week again, it will happen next week. “So I just tried to keep my head up, finally saw a little bit of results from the hard work I put in coming in to play this week. I just want to build on it,” she added.

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