It was a couple of years ago, back when Eugenie Bouchard was still in the early stages of her wobbly plummet from near the top of the tennis world to world No. 70, that one of her cadre of now-former coaches philosophized about his player’s fall from prominence.
“You have several choices when going through a storm,” Sam Sumyk was quoted as saying. “You can get depressed, you can attach a weight to your leg and jump off a bridge. Or, if you have character, and I think my player has lots of character, you try and bounce back.”
Sumyk parted ways with Bouchard not long after he made those remarks. But some two years and a few coaches later, we’re still mostly waiting for Bouchard’s impending bounce-back. Certainly it didn’t come Tuesday at Aviva Centre, when Bouchard lost her opening match of the Rogers Cup to Donna Vekic, the world No. 51 from Croatia. For Bouchard, the match began poorly and ended too quickly – in a 6-3, 6-4 ousting that lasted all of 94 minutes.
So much for all that pre-match talk from Bouchard about being energized by a home crowd. While the Genie Army was in attendance on the grounds of York University, Bouchard ultimately didn’t give her supporters much to cheer about.
She simply wasn’t good enough on her first serve, holding just once in the first set.
The match, if you watched it closely, put to rest the idea that the 23-year-old Bouchard doesn’t care about tennis anymore – an argument that’s easily concocted from afar if you couple her dismal results with her ever-booming career as a social-media darling. Bouchard grinded it out on Tuesday. She played long points. She battled through her many mistakes. You couldn’t watch that match and make a case she was playing with one eye on her Instagram feed.
But after it was over, you could have been convinced that Bouchard was almost breathing a sigh of relief with her defeat.
“Someone else can carry the burden of Canada,” she told reporters.
A day after Bouchard acknowledged in a pre-match media conference that her quest to master tennis’s mental side is an “ongoing battle,” things couldn’t have set up better for her than they did on Tuesday.
While Bouchard was prominent on tournament promotional material – “Genie Debuts Today!” was the message on the cover of the souvenir program – there was a less-than-subtle message in the order of play. It was as though someone was trying to lighten her load, lessen her burden, give her the idea that the tournament’s fate wasn’t resting on her results.
It’s probably also difficult to rediscover your form when you’re snagged in a difficult catch-22. Bouchard’s win-loss record in main-draw events this season now stands at 10-15, so she clearly isn’t playing well. But she also isn’t playing much. Tuesday’s match was her 25th significant outing of the calendar year. At his point a year ago she’d played in 41 main-draw matches.
Which speaks to why Bouchard is still alive in the tournament. While Vekic carried on to face third-seeded Angelique Kerber in the second round of the singles draw, Bouchard sped off to play a doubles match that began shortly after her singles fate was sealed. Paired with world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, Bouchard found a way to play another day this week. The Pliskova-Bouchard duo defeated Dominika Cibulkova vs. Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the round of 16.
Bouchard said she decided to play doubles to “get a little more match play” in this otherwise match-deprived season. That probably won’t come as serious consolation for tournament organizers, mind you. Before Bouchard took the court on Tuesday Karl Hale, the tournament director, was upbeat about the event’s early returns. While Rogers Cup officials spoke of record crowds for Monday night’s matches, Hale talked about how the tournament has become ever more firmly woven into the city’s “cultural fabric.” And he pointed to a handful of celebrity sightings to underline his point, including TFC’s Jozy Altidore, CFL great Damon Allen, and recently retired NFLer Stephen Tulloch, most recently of the Detroit Lions.
Hale was asked if the good feelings around the blue courts had anything to do with the “Drake effect” – this past long weekend having been the backdrop for the global ambassador’s OVO Fest.
“No, it’s all a Genie effect,” said Hale with a chuckle. “Genie runs everything here.”
Not for the remainder of this week – at least not without Pliskova at her side. And so we continue to await Bouchard’s long-sought bounce-back. At age 23, it was pointed out to her, she can hardly be considered too old for a renaissance to be plausible. Um, right, Genie?
“I mean, I guess I’m relatively young, but I feel old in a way,” she said. “You know, I’ve been on tour a bunch of years already. And I think it’s important to feel the pressure of time a little bit, to get into action and not just relax and let years go by. That would be the worst thing I could do. But if the media doesn’t put pressure on me, I mean, that would be nice.”
Nothing removes the pressure of winning more efficiently than chronic losing, mind you.
At this rate, Bouchard’s doing a fine job of lightening the apparently unbearable burden of expectation.
Dave Feschuk is a national Canadian sports writer.