When you’re ranked No. 332 in the world as Genie Bouchard is at the moment, openings at WTA Tour events are golden.
And as tennis slowly returns from the coronavirus shutdown, higher-ranked players who also have been out for months are just as eager to play.
So when an opportunity comes around, you grab it. In her situation, you never know when the next one will come around.
And so the former world No. 5 finds herself in Prague, Czech Republic for the first time in her life, ready to get back to tournament play on red clay as a wild card at the Prague Open.
“I’m just so grateful I was able to get the opportunity to play. These tournaments, I think a lot of players want to play, so they’re tough. And I obviously needed a wild card. The tournament director David (Trunda) is super cool and super nice, so he was nice enough to give me one,” Bouchard said via Zoom conference from Prague. “As soon as I was told I had an opportunity to play – to have a job – I was all for it. I’m just so happy to be here.”
She’s not in the doubles draw; the two wild cards went to two young Czech duos.
Bouchard will have a touch match right out of the box against Veronika Kudermetova of Russia. Their match is scheduled not before 12:30 p.m. (6:30 a.m. EDT) Monday.
Unlike Bouchard, Kudermetova was playing her best tennis before the long break. She finished 2019 at a career-high No. 41, the first top-100 year-end finish of her slow-but-steady rise.
Tough first-round opponent
Currently at No. 40, the 23-year-old was at her career high after the Australian Open in early February and went 11-6 to start 2020, including wins over Dayana Yastremska, Samantha Stosur, Kristina Mladenovic, Yulia Putintseva and Cici Bellis.
Kudermetova won three rounds of qualifying before defeating Yastremska in a third-set tiebreak in Dubai in February. She lost the next match to Garbiñe Muguruza, who had just reached the Australian Open final, 6-4 in the third set.
Bouchard has played far less. She’s 4-3 on the season including encouraging wins over Kirsten Flipkens and Caroline Garcia in her season opener in Auckland. The two other wins came the qualifying at the Australian Open before she fell to clay-courter Martina Trevisan of Italy at the final hurdle.
The Canadian’s last tournament match was late January – nearly 7 1/2 months ago. And it was a desultory loss to American Alexa Glatch in which she won just three games.
“It’s weird, I kind of want to have no expectations, because we haven’t played in so many months. I feel like most of the players are in the same boat, though, so at least it’s kind of an even playing field of maybe feeling kind of rusty on the court and not being used to competitive play,” Bouchard said.
Exhibition play helped mental aspect
“I did play some exhibitions and. I played World Team Tennis as well. So I feel like hopefully that competitive aspect, I kind of mentally have that a little bit. But, again this is a real tournament so it’s on another level. So kind of just expecting the unexpected.
“Even if it goes badly I want to try my best, I want to hang in there, I want to fight, and just try everything I can and just be happy to have an opportunity to be on court,” Bouchard added.
Relocated to Las Vegas, where she works with former Andre Agassi physical trainer Gil Reyes, Bouchard was on her way to the WTA 125K tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico on March 10 when she literally turned around and went home before getting on the flight.
Indian Wells had been cancelled, and the cancellation of the Guadalajara event was expected imminently.
Bouchard finding the silver lining
As for most, the lockdown was tough for Bouchard, who was in a strange city where she didn’t know a lot of people.
The 26-year-old had already missed a Fed Cup tie against Switzerland in early February, after she injured her left wrist on the last practice before she was to face top-10 player Belinda Bencic.
Her teammate, 17-year-old Leylah Fernandez, subtituted for her and pulled off the big upset, even though the Canadian team ended up losing.
Tennis was pushed to the side a little bit for a few months while Bouchard worked on the physical side – and ramped up again once she was invited to an exhibition in Charleston, S.C. in mid-June.
“There are two different paths you can take. You can either be sad about it, like, depressed, not do your job, not try to improve yourself. Or you can try to work even harder and take the time and opportunity to get even better,” Bouchard said. “It was tough mentally to push yourself day in and day out without any kind of schedule. But I tried to take it like, these are just bonus days I get to spent in the gym. Normally as a tennis player, we don’t have that time. All in all, it kind of made me work even harder in a way, and appreciate what I do even more.
“They say, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
Positive experiences in Charleston, West Virginia
Bouchard had more competitive experiences than many of the players during lockdown. She got to play singles at the Credit One Bank Invitational on Har-Tru in mid-June. And then she teamed up with doubles standout Bethanie Mattek-Sands through three weeks of play at the World Team Tennis event in West Virginia, completed a week ago.
The pair mowed down nearly every duo in their way. Their team, the Chicago Smash, reached the final before losing in a dramatic final-point showdown against the New York Empire.
If the format was abbreviated, and the stakes not the same, any bit of momentum and confidence can help when the road ahead is long.
In Prague, as in Charleston, Bouchard also has the experienced former doubles star Rennae Stubbs to support her. Stubbs coached Karolina Pliskova and worked with her longtime friend and countrywoman Samantha Stosur this year, before Stosur took the rest of the year off to enjoy her new daughter.
“My coaches were telling me, obviously, whenever tournaments start back up again you’ll have plenty of opportunities so if you do the work, and you’re on the right track, we know you belong much higher than your ranking is right now. So if you do the right things it’ll come on its own,” Bouchard said. “I think just focusing on that that causes more stress and anxiety than necessary. If I do the right thing I know I’ll be better than I am today.”