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Behind the Selfie: Can Sam Sumyk Make Bouchard a Champion?

What’s in a coach? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
-CAPULET, Juliet. Retired professional tennis player (#orsomething).

Indeed, professional tennis’ seemingly non-stop coaching carousel has occasionally given the impression of one great, big Shakespearean drama. From the emergence of early “supercoaches” – like Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg – to the highly-touted and #proud coaches – see: Carlos Rodriguez and Patrick Mouratoglou – it seems as if nowadays the coaches are just about as well known as the players themselves.

The most recent #narrative penned into the annals of coaching compendium is that of Eugenie Bouchard and the newest member of her team, Sam Sumyk – who up until the second week of this year’s Australian Open had been coach to former No.1, Victoria Azarenka.

The partnership, seemingly out of nowhere given Sumyk and wife/agent Meilen Tu’s longtime relationship with Victoria Azarenka, faced initial scrutiny from fans and media, many of whom suggested that there was something more at play, that Bouchard “stole” the high-profile coach from his long-time pupil.

Yet today Bouchard seemed to silence those rumors: “My fitness trainer, Scott, has been friends with Sam for a while now. They’ve both been on tour for a while,” said the 20-year-old Canadian. “After the Australian Open was done, Scott found out that Sam wasn’t going to be working with Vika anymore, and he suggested we meet. The rest is history.”

As news of any reputable coach taking on a new charge would be, this new partnership provides an exciting opportunity for a young player like Bouchard – along with her #army of fans.

What a coach brings to the table is objectively subjective; just as a player does, each one possesses a different style, set of skills, and personality that need to work agreeably with their student for optimal results. Thus, it’s essentially impossible to precisely measure what changes might or might not occur within the partnership.

But it is fun to speculate.

In the case of Azarenka, Sumyk’s influence during his nearly five year tenure was notably evident. Despite her technically impeccable groundstrokes, the then-No. 7 ranked Belorussian had widely acknowledged emotional ferocity on court. In tense moments, her weaknesses were rarely between the ball and her racquet – they were more often between the ears.

After Sumyk, however, the fire hadn’t been tamed, but rather, harnessed. No longer throwing racquets or yelling up to the heavens, Azarenka rose up the ranks with a firm belief in her game and a hitherto unseen mental composure that saw her take out several top players en route to lifting two major titles in two years – and emerge as a World No.1.

Can we expect the same from Bouchard? She, too, is a 20-year-old World No.7 with blond hair, an attacking game, and an insatiable will to win.

It’s a compelling comparison, to be sure. For one, Bouchard’s style of play arguably resembles Azarenka’s more than any other active major champion. Just like the two-time Australian Open champion, the Wimbledon finalist takes the ball astoundingly early, on the rise, and rarely compromises aggressive positioning on return. Her serve isn’t an asset, but it can start points well enough to keep her on the front foot in most match-ups.

The Canadian lacks the raw power of a Kvitova or Sharapova, but uses acute angles to open the court up for winners. With Bouchard’s stylistically similar approach, then, one can’t help but feel that Sumyk will gel with the former’s brand of tennis.

However, the similarities end there.

For one, Bouchard plays with some of the most unconventional technique of anyone in the WTA’s Top 50. This isn’t to say it’s not effective, just not very aesthetically pleasing. By contrast, Azarenka hits forehands and backhands straight from the textbook of tennis technique. If Sumyk is to attempt to add new tactics to the young Canadian’s game, it will require a significantly different approach than it required with his former charge.

The major improvement in Azarenka’s form – which facilitated her rise to the mecca of women’s tennis – was in the quelling of her fiery mentality; Bouchard is ice cold in her mental approach – at least, on the outside. Her temperament, particularly on the bigger stages, has tended to be essential to her own emergence as a top player; therefore any additions to her mental game by her new French coach must come from a different angle than they did for Azarenka.

Fans of last year’s Most Improved Player will tell you that despite that such an accolade, there is still much to fix in her impressive, but presently limited, game. To complement her propensity for attacking tennis, Bouchard’s first and second serves could and should be much better – starting on the back foot against strong returners isn’t something that works with that style of play.

The Canadian’s forward movement is strong, but she often finds herself flat footed when making volleys, and her lateral movement while defending is suspect, at best. Her backhand, while effective on attack, doesn’t absorb pace well and could benefit from an improved slice – although she’d have to learn how to hit closed-stance for that to even be a possibility.

With these shortcomings in mind, her career-high ranking of No. 5 truly speaks volumes about her strong psyche and consistent ability to attack the ball early. The prospect of a fresh set of eyes and a new voice, then, just might be bad news for a field that’s only just beginning to write the book on Bouchard.

One cannot assume that this arrival will mean instant success, fulfillment of storied potential and a box set Golden Slam. New coaching partnerships, as Maria Sharapova or Andy Murray could tell you, are about give and take and, above all else, slow and steady progress. They don’t happen over night, and it’s rarely like love at first sight.

Now there’s the kind of stuff you find in Shakespeare.

What do you think of the new pairing between Bouchard and Sumyk? Sound off in the comments!

About Jeff Donaldson (35 Articles)
Queen's University '15. Tennis Canada. @jddtennis/@donaldsonjd

3 Comments on Behind the Selfie: Can Sam Sumyk Make Bouchard a Champion?

  1. Bouchard is an interesting case, as her mental assets can easily become her obstacles. One senses a real fragility under that exterior toughness, and when there is such a need to succeed, the tipping point is a sharp on indeed.

    Her move away from Saviano was absolutely crucial.

    We’ll just have to see how things evolve with Sumyk. My worries for Bouchard as she steps up her quest to compete with the big hitters have to do with injury.

    As for her personality, (which seems to annoy may of those who care about these things) I think Bouchard is a very self-protective person. I think she’s an intelligent person who keeps herself well hidden behind the figure we see in her selfies and self promotion.


  2. chad cunningham // February 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm // Reply

    Anyone know the story on why Sumyk walked away from Azarenka….she’s not overly likeable but amazingly talented……She was sweet….but changed…
    I hope Bouchard stays humble….and Sumyk helps her grab some majors


  3. Bouchard has to win. Her personality won’t let her do anything else. Win or fail. To be so overwhelmingly competitive could be working against her. She may be getting herself in knots and as such be unteachable till she overcomes this tendency and settles down and sets realistic goals over time. I imagine this will be a mental area for Sam to work on – but this tendency may be in the genes. Her popularity has suffered because of this self obsession. A good winner is should always be able to reveal she can cope with losing.
    She must be teachable – prepared to let go, build on strengths, work on abandoning weaknesses. If she can’t be taught – who needs a coach!!!


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