Eugenie Bouchard did her part Saturday at the Madrid Open.
Your turn, Maria Sharapova.
The 23-year-old Canadian finally ended her streak of futility; the 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 first-round victory over Alizé Cornet of France was her first match win at the WTA Tour level since the Australian Open in January.
It was hard to gauge which side of the court was more tense. And the enterprise wasn’t especially stylish. But Bouchard’s first victory in her last seven tournaments was never going to come easily.
The road since Australia has been strewn with potholes and puddles. Bouchard even self-demoted to the ITF Pro Circuit, the minor leagues of pro tennis, in search of some confidence and match wins.
That didn’t go particularly well. And the longer the dry spell was extended, the more challenging it was going to be for Bouchard to get herself out of it.
This was the first three-set match the Canadian has won in nearly 10 months. Bouchard defeated Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in a third-set tiebreaker at her hometown tournament, the Rogers Cup in Montreal, last July.
¡Enorme 😊 de @geniebouchard!
— #MMOPEN (@MutuaMadridOpen) May 6, 2017
In Cornet, she faced an opponent whose emotions often get the better of her.
An Alizé Cornet match can be must-see TV, or it can be like rubbernecking at a two-car pileup. Sometimes it’s both in the same match.
The 27-year-old Frenchwoman gave Bouchard just enough help early on. And the Canadian was able to run away with the third set with some occasionally excellent shotmaking and a fair bit of calm under pressure. Add to that frustrated opponent who couldn’t hang in there and wait for things to turn around – as she had done so well in the previous set – and it’s a much-needed win.
Half the potential popcorn match set
When the Madrid Open draw came out on Friday, the potential second-round clash between Bouchard and Sharapova lit up as though in neon.
It took the draw gods no time at all, in the wake of Bouchard’s very publicized comments about Sharapova and her return from a doping suspension, to cooperate to make an on-court clash happen.
Bouchard held firm when asked about it by the media in Madrid after the match. “It’s my personal opinion. I’ve always played true my whole career,” she said. “Yeah, just my opinion.”
Sharapova still must defeat No. 17 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia Sunday to make the date, though.
The match began as many of Bouchard’s defeats have, with a good start. She was up 4-2 early and managed to hold on long enough to take the first set.
The second set was that two-car pileup. Bouchard would break serve, then get broken. Rinse, repeat three times.
A couple of bad-luck net cords didn’t help the Canadian as Cornet closed out the set.
Coach Thomas to the rescue
Enter coach Thomas Högstedt, whose counsel was missing during Bouchard’s last two tournaments in Monterrey, Mexico and Istanbul, Turkey.
He pulled out all of his best on-court coaching moves.
The Swede is one of the rare coaches in the women’s game who goes out of his way to include the opponent in the conversation. His advice to former pupil Sharapova during one match years ago went like this: “Don’t worry. She’s gonna choke.”
It’s still a classic.
As Bouchard complained of a sore stomach, Högstedt reiterated the obvious.
“She’s not confident. Your opponent is not confident. Because you show the (poor) attitude, she hangs in there. At the end of this set you looked like you don’t care,” he said. “You win this match. Whatever the score is now, win this match – one ball at a time. Go in there and decide you’re going to and go in and change it – like you did in Australia.”
The Canadian had two break points in the first game of the third set, but couldn’t convert. But in the third game, she broke. Even better, Bouchard broke with a one-two volley combination: a forehand swing volley and then a short-angle crosscourt backhand volley for the winner.
At 3-1, she broke Cornet at love for some insurance.
After just over two hours, Bouchard looked in command of a tennis match for the first time in months. There were a few “C’MON”s and fist pumps. There were points won at the net. She was patient, often enough, from the back court. At times, the shot selection was spot on.
When it was over, she looked over to her support group and even cracked a smile.
Just one small step
At No. 60 in the world, Bouchard’s ranking still hasn’t felt the full weight of her struggles in 2017.
She hasn’t been playing anything like a top-100 player, but the numbers still don’t really reflect it. Her ranking in the WTA’s Porsche Race to Singapore standings is just one spot below her actual ranking.
Bouchard has some clusters of points coming up that need defending, including a third-round effort in Rome last year. Without those Rome points, she would drop about a dozen spots. So the 55 points she earned for winning this first-round, Premier Mandatory tournament match will help.
Now, she waits.
Will it be Lucic-Baroni, the 35-year-old comeback story?
Or will it be Sharapova, whom she has not beaten in four tries although the last came more than 2 1/2 years ago.
Bouchard said after that while she felt both had similar aggressive styles, Sharapova is the one she wants to play.
It was a little more than a week ago that Bouchard spoke up loudly against the player she said she once admired. The Canadian feels those caught doping should be banned for life.
There were no shades of gray to her statements, even though there are so many shades of gray in the anti-doping game. Even the official adjudicating bodies more or less agreed Sharapova’s transgression was more sloppiness than any intent to enhance performance.
Not that Sharapova needs any motivation at this point; she’s had 15 months on the sidelines and is raring to go. But this one might have a little extra spice to it.
We’ll see if it happens.