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Genie in the Bottle: Debating Bouchard’s Shaky Season

Photo: Christopher Levy

Photo: Christopher Levy

Buoyed by a rapid ascent into the Top 10 and a slew of solid finishes at the majors, Eugenie Bouchard’s name was everywhere. The Canadian’s straight-forward and unapologetic manner divided opinions from the sidelines, but there was little doubt that things had clicked into place for her on the court. A more counterpunching junior, Bouchard employed a far more aggressive game on the WTA Tour under Nick Saviano, and her star was on the rise throughout most of last year.

But eight months removed from her first major final and Bouchard finds herself a the crest of a slippery slope. Since making the Australian Open quarterfinals in January, her season has taken a nose dive with five consecutive losses to players ranked outside the Top 50. With another surprisingly disappointing performance – this time at Fed Cup – there are far more than just question marks surrounding the youngster. David Kane and René Denfeld will try to find some answers that might lead to the Emancipation of Genie.

David Kane: For better or worse, Bouchard has been a lightening rod for discussion for well over a year. The Canadian ostensibly finished last season on a high – qualifying for her first WTA Finals – but there some of the earliest storm clouds can be traced back to that very week. On-court tensions with Saviano appear to have led to their split, leaving Bouchard without an official coach until after the Australian Open. While she played well enough in Melbourne, she struggled through two tough matches against Caroline Garcia and Irina Camelia Begu – two players Bouchard would have easily beaten in 2014 – and had no answers against Maria Sharapova. The real dip in form appears to coincide with the switch to Sam Sumyk, Victoria Azarenka’s former coach. Since teaming with the Frenchman, she’s won just two matches.

I guess that’s it; let’s go home. But that seems like too simple a solution, no?

René Denfeld: Yeah, case closed. *mic drop*

No, that would be a pretty simple, dare I say lazy answer. If anything, it seems to be an amalgamation of a veritable plenitude of elements. Perhaps Sumyk is one of them, but I feel like holding him responsible for Bouchard’s current slump overlooks all the warning signs that were there even before he began working with her in February.

Bouchard’s Australian Open result was exactly the one that was expected of her. But the way she lost to Sharapova was already worrying. Her refusal to drop an inch of the baseline to players who can overpower her was already been an issue in 2014 – and the 2015 Melbourne quarterfinals showed no sign of progress. Taking the ball early and being hyper aggressive simply doesn’t work when your opponent can hit you off of the court no matter what.

Yet in the past few weeks, none of her losses have come to streaking “ballbashers” – that would be, just to name one of Bouchard’s conquerors, the most un-Lauren Davis description of Lauren Davis in the history of tennis. So it has to be more than that.

DK: One often creates a dichotomy between the physical and mental aspects of the game, and though she has been reluctant to discuss them, injuries have certainly been a factor. In what seemed like a routine match against Lesia Tsurenko – who turned her own ankle late in the first set – Bouchard was suddenly struggling with an abdominal injury, and hasn’t won a match since. The Canadian echoes a Jelena Jankovic-esque approach to her season, a desire to schedule such that she plays her way into form. She accepted a wildcard to Charleston and was a last minute addition to the Fed Cup team this weekend, but neither ventures bore fruit.

RD: …which is fairly confusing considering she stated she wanted to play a lighter schedule before the season started…

DK: …and which would seem to speak to her relative lack of experience competing at the highest echelon of the sport; as calmly as she speaks about her season, many of these decisions would speak to a degree of internal panic. As Sloane Stephens could tell us, life isn’t always easy when most of your ranking points are tied up at the major tournaments. She said she was healthy on Sunday; after watching her play, do we believe it?

RD: I’m not sure. What’s going on with the ankle guard on one of her feet? But if she says she is healthy, then I do not have much choice other than take her word on it – plus it would be utter madness to try to play yourself into form while having injury woes. I’m sure there are some players who have done it, but the repercussions are usually more costly than the short-term gains.

DK: Speaking of Serbs, Ana Ivanovic, anyone? There are those who trace back the former No. 1’s infamous “process” (née slump) to a thumb injury that ultimately kept her out of the Beijing Olympics. But we’ve seen quite a few comparisons between Bouchard and erratic major winners, like the above concerning Petra Kvitova. Besides the key differences in hardware, I’m not sure the theory holds due to the third, oft-ignored aspect of tennis: technique.

One may think there are only so many ways to hit a tennis ball, but results would show that some ways are more effective – certainly more reliable – than others. Descriptions of Bouchard’s technique in the last year tend to be qualified, but complementary: “Surprisingly effective,” “Unique,” “Doesn’t look like it should work.” But for so long – and on the biggest stages – it did. What did you make of her technique through her successes, and how much might it have to do with her present setbacks?

RD: I have long said that Bouchard’s groundstrokes remind me of baseball batting at best and, particularly when she’s playing someone who is technically sound, the differences become glaringly obvious. But as it has been noted more than once – there are many ways to skin a cat.

I think with Bouchard’s technical limits (the groundstroke production just doesn’t lend itself well to defense), it is of utmost importance for her to – quite literally – call the shots in the rallies. When she’s in a key position, she can take the ball early and swat them away. On defense, however, she doesn’t have the soft hands of an Angelique Kerber – just to name another player with somewhat unorthodox technique – to make up for it. And in many ways, I think that is where her current state of mind and her tennis intertwine.

DK: More than limited, her game never looked reliable. To look at Bouchard hit a ball without seeing its trajectory, one would assume that the shot sprayed wide or landed in the bottom of the net. Yet for most of 2014, they would scream past most opponents for winners. That kind of repeated success engenders more and more confidence, and her performance at last year’s majors certainly looked like products of greater and greater belief.

The fairer Czech-parison, then, would be to Nicole Vaidisova. She of similar career high and Grand Slam results has a far more loopy technique than Bouchard, but the effect was just as flat and thudding when it worked. It seemed only a matter of time before the OG Rising Star emerged as a major champion. But she suddenly hit a wall in 2008, and the descent was swift. Void of confidence, the game (and results) went with it. Bouchard still speaks confidently that things will turn around, but what do you think of the comparison and how much confidence might link with technique?

RD: I think bringing in Vaidisova is solid: let’s face it, the now-25-year-old was only points away from making a Slam final herself nearly a decade ago. But I do believe that Bouchard is hungrier for success and more aware of what she wants to achieve than Vaidisova was when she was 18.

With confidence comes stepping into the ball and trusting into your shots – without that you’ll find yourself on the backfoot. And that is where Bouchard is most vulnerable, because her game isn’t structured around “grinding out” a match when Plan A isn’t working. The Canadian instead tries to remain aggressive and we’ve seen the results of her trying to to do so without being confident. So yes, I definitely think that’s a link between Bouchard’s confidence and her technique.

DK: Indeed, in spite of her waning results, Bouchard is still trying her best to act as if it’s business as usual. She even revived her “No Pre-Match Handshakes” crusade which, if the number of views on media capturing Alexandra Dulgheru mocking the snub with her team are any indication, backfired to comedic effect. It’s a move that seems to at least confuse players and fans, and irk them in even greater numbers. Dulgheru admitted it gave her greater incentive to play well. I can’t decide if she’s dancing on the lip of the volcano, or if this is an attempt at tenacity that might serve her well in the future.

RD: As I tweeted earlier, this weekend turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for Bouchard – on a PR as well as a tennis level. “Handshake-gate” is definitely an interesting one; I didn’t understand her reasoning the first time around, and I didn’t understand it this weekend – mainly because it isn’t just about wishing your opponent “good luck,” but also wishing each other  a match played to the best of your combined abilities.

But regardless of what she does next in her Fed Cup future there will likely continue to be snide remarks from people – either for keeping this break with tradition going and/or for “buckling under the pressure.” Having said that, do you think Bouchard gets rougher treatment from four corners, or is it just an impression that’s perhaps amplified by jokes on twitter? And do you think it affects her personally?

DK: What makes a tennis player likeable is hardly formulaic, but I don’t believe fans simply take her words and automatically dislike her; what ultimately matters most is what happens on the court. Unfortunately for Bouchard, who has an active and (pardon the pun) “militant” fan presence at her matches, but lacks an aesthetically traditional game – and many wins over the game’s best (despite her headline-grabbing results) – her off-court behavior does little to make up for the deficit for many.

If one wishes to wade through some of the Canadian’s quotes of late, one stands out in particular: “Sometimes I think success masks issues or problems, so…you learn a lot more when you lose.” These are hardly the words of an arrogant young adult blinded by the shine of so much, so soon. I agree that she differs in mentality from Vaidisova, but I’m curious how you think Bouchard plans to apply what she’s learned from these losses, and if it may still get worse before it gets better.

RD: I think it might get worse on paper while it gets better for her on court, ironically enough. Bouchard has another two weeks off to try and work things out before Madrid, but my current theory is that it’ll take her a little longer than that. So there is a chance that the Canadian might be able to slowly work her way out of the slump over the next few weeks, but likely not quickly enough to salvage her Top 10 ranking by the time we hit the Emirates Airlines US Open Series. Whatever the outcome, the rest of Bouchard’s season, and how she handles this sophomore “situation” is certainly going to be interesting, to say the least.

DK: As excellent as her French Open semifinal finish was – and though her sole WTA title came in Nurnberg – it bears repeating that clay is her least favorite surface. Solving technical issues on courts that already make her uncomfortable might be a bridge too far for Bouchard. Her grass court results will be far more telling; for as much as she talks the talk, we have seen moments of doubt flash across her face, even when things were going better overall. I don’t know how immediately the Canadian might mentally rebuild should she fail to defend most of her points at Wimbledon. But her best result of the season was at a Grand Slam tournament, so it might be best to reconvene after Paris and go from there. Eugenie Bouchard may be a polarizing character on the WTA Tour, but through success and struggle, she keeps people talking.

What do you think of Bouchard’s season thus far? Sound off in the comments!

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2 Comments on Genie in the Bottle: Debating Bouchard’s Shaky Season

  1. Pfeifferchild // April 20, 2015 at 6:32 pm // Reply

    Although it pains me & tortures my soul to say this – because I am NOT a fan of Bouchard and, in addition, there are things that her whole story embraces that I find utterly abhorrent when it comes to modern sport, I do find her utterly mesmeric and the most fascinating player on the WTA circuit.

    She is the epitome of enigmatic, totally unfathomable and has got something of the Lost Soul about her – which is always captivating. I am not even sure if she even understands herself, and why she does what she does.

    It feels like, sometimes, we are watching a movie through our fingers, unable to take our eyes off the screen, wondering which way the story will take us.

    @pfeifferchild

    Like

  2. I find her to be rather perplexing – she has good results, but her technique is wonky. She’s portrayed as the golden child, and made to sound arrogant, but actually reading quotes she doesn’t sound it.

    Bah. It’s rather frustrating to say the least. I don’t like her much, but that’s more due to the way she’s been covered by the WTA and the media than actually her herself. I empathise with her as well – some of her matches have been painful to watch when you can see her frustrations with herself. I hope that she can figure out what’s not working before she loses confidence in herself.

    Like

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