Genie-mania in Japan: Canada’s Bouchard wows crowds in Tokyo
Star quality. Some athletes — like musicians, actors or ordinary folks — have it, and others don’t.
Canadian tennis sensation Genie Bouchard, 19, seems to have it. She has the type of personality — earthy yet cosmopolitan, beautiful yet rugged — that cuts across barriers of language and culture, age and gender.
Japanese fans know it when they see it. Perhaps they don’t know that she won Wimbledon juniors last year, or that she’s risen from the top 350 to the best 50 in pro rankings this year, or that she’s expected to become the most successful female tennis player ever from Canada.
What they see is: she’s nice. She has a nice smile and a playful way of expressing herself.
She’s cute, or as Japanese say, kawaii. She likes Hello Kitty, and is happy to receive Hello Kitty gifts from fans. (One Japanese writer, Atsuki Uchida, has nicknamed her “Hello Genie“.)
“Yes, I am obsessed, it’s true. I came to Asia for the first time last year, and now is my second time in Japan. Fans are giving me gifts all the time. They gave me Hello Kitty clothes and stuff: purses, towels, dolls. I don’t have to go shopping for this stuff,” she jokes. “For people who say it’s only for five-year olds, well, it’s true. So I’m trying to stay five years old.”
If Bouchard seems soft and cuddly on the outside, she’s also rock solid inside, and she often talks about believing in herself. She fights hard on the court, and doesn’t give up when she’s down — something that Japanese tend to value in their own culture.
Japan’s nascent love affair with Genie-san really began in her early round match against brawny American slugger Sloane Stephens, who already draws comparisons with world number one Serena Williams, just as Bouchard reminds fans of her idol Maria Sharapova.
Bouchard raced to a 5-0 lead, then blew the next 7 games to lose the first set. She fell behind 2-4 and 3-5. It was an ugly September typhoon season afternoon. The air was heavy with humidity and sweat, the light dull and sleep-inducing. Storm clouds, moving in from the Pacific Ocean and Tokyo Bay, were threatening to postpone matches.
She could have folded right then. She could have had a shower, massage, and the rest of the day off to enjoy her hotel room and the wonders of Tokyo, as others teenager would do. Then she would move on to her next tour stop, and learn from the experience of losing. She’s only 19, so nobody really expects her to win tournaments anyway.
But Bouchard fought back hard. She became more aggressive, taking balls early, hitting heavy topspins deep into the corners, forcing her opponent into errors that really aren’t unforced. Momentum shifted. Bouchard kept her nerve and won the tie-breaker 9-7.
Now Stephens seemed shaky and distracted by a noisy loudspeaker on the other side of the fence. She looked around and yelled over to her team. Bouchard, meanwhile, zoomed in concentration and focus. She seemed to block out the banter in the make-shift market nearby, as a Japanese man on stage hollered out “jun-ken-po” to lead a game of rock-scissors-papers, a sort of national pastime in Japan.
Bouchard, commanding points with well-placed serves, took the third and final set 6-3.
“It was definitely an up-and-down match,” Bouchard said later. “We’ve known each other since age 12. We used to train in Florida together. I was disappointed with how things went in the first set. My serve was an issue, not controlling the point with my serve, which is what I want to do. But I kept fighting and trying.”
It was the kind of dramatic comeback victory that wins over fans in any sport, any country. People didn’t rush out of the stands to other matches at the national tennis center, which will host the 2020 Olympic tennis. They gathered around the fence to mob the young Canadian with the golden braid. Bouchard, smiling, signed every autograph.
Suddenly, in Japan, a new star was born.
That star power carried over the next day into her round three match against former top-ranked Jelena Jankovic. Bouchard, playing on center court in swampy heat under the closed roof of Ariake Arena, fell behind 4-5 to the powerful Serb, who had earlier beaten Japanese riser Ayumi Morita.
Even journalists sitting high above the court could hear it. “Nathalie told me to be more aggressive, which is basically what my game is,” Bouchard recalled after the match. “I like to control the point from my serve. I try to dominate my points. I wasn’t aggressive enough in the first set. So I was able to do that, and turn the match from that point.”
Bouchard responded with three of the most impressive games ever played by a Canadian. (watch from after the 30-minute mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gml1Q9_3Pl4)
She wapped inside-out forehand winners. She pounded Jankovic with body-blow spin serves. She moved the older player around, pushing her onto her heels, forcing her into mistakes. She lured the impatient elder into the net, then passed her with a dipping cross-court running forehand. She rocketed a backhand return for a winner, then drilled a forehand return at the server’s feet. She made Jankovic work for everything she got. Bouchard hit a looping top spin forehand into the corner — an Andre Agassi trick — and finished it off with a difficult inside-out forehand of a ball above her head. Then she crouched to smack a forehand winner down the line, and clinch the set with an angled volley.
She won the second set to set up a quarter-final meeting with Venus Williams, an icon of the sport, a player with genuine star quality that goes beyond the world of sports. It was one of the biggest wins of Bouchard’s career.
In the on-court interview, Bouchard called the victory a “step in the journey”.
She delighted in the ritual of hitting balls into the crowd, as somebody unveiled a Fleurdelise flag of Quebec.
In the hallway after the match, Jankovic could be heard arguing in Serb with her staff. Bouchard had done something to enervate her. Bouchard, meanwhile, impressed journalists in Japan with her Westmount, Montreal charm and sense of humor. She even pretended to understand a long question in Japanese, answering “yes” before waiting for the translation. Fluent in English and French, you could see Bouchard trying to pick up the sounds of Japanese, as if hoping to someday comprehend one of the world’s most formidable languages.
She was everything that journalists want a young rising star to be. She was friendly and fun, and thoughtful in her answers. She speaks with the maturity of more seasoned athletes who can analyze their games and see themselves with detachment and humility.
“Last year I came here and I didn’t even get to play in the qualifiers. I was basically here practicing. I didn’t really like Tokyo that much because I didn’t play. This year I was last in the main draw so I was lucky with that. I’m just happy to be playing as many matches as I can. It’s part of a long journey, and I’m trying to improve every day.”
Earlier in the week, when I asked her in a solo interview about how to build mental toughness, she didn’t just reel off a cliche. She was quick to think on her feet, just like on the court. “You can be born with it a bit, but you also have to work on it. You can get it from experience. The more experience you can get out of matches, the more mentally tough you can become. Playing tough players makes you a tougher player.”
Bouchard’s rapid rise is perhaps the biggest news in Canadian women’s tennis in recent memory, yet Canadian media are still obsessing over a hockey brawl involving neanderthal males with anger management issues.
They are really missing something. Bouchard’s not only knocking off seeded players with inspiring comebacks, she has a winning personality. She seems to relish her life as a budding tennis talent and world traveler. Last year, along with her friend Laura Robson, an Olympic medalist from Great Britain, she made a funny satire video of Gangnam Style, featuring a cameo by Sharapova. (It’s a must-see, with more than 450,000 views on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gGfIwM38xI)
Bouchard said she grew up admiring Steffi Graf and then Sharapova. “Even after her shoulder surgery, she’s come back and shown her fighting spirit,” Bouchard said about Sharapova. “She’s one of the best. It’s an honour to be compared to her. She’s won four Grand Slams, she’s been number one in the world. I’m my own person. We’re different. I have my own personality. There’s both sides to it.”
She speaks with pride about representing her country and family. “My parents are really happy for me. They know how much it means to me, and how hard I’ve been working all these years. My mother and my three siblings came with me to Florida when I lived there from age 12 to 15. They’ve seen how I’ve been working hard my whole life to realize my dreams. They support that and they’re happy for me.”
Even though she still hasn’t won anything big on the pro tour, she’s already thinking of how to “give back” to the community. Like Milos Raonic, she wants to popularize tennis in hockey-mad Canada. “Milos has done great things and I want to do the same for women’s tennis. Little kids see you and they want to become like you. Little girls want to play more because of your success. I played in Quebec City two weeks ago. I had the chance to hit with a few kids, and to do a question and answer session with kids who train there. It was a great experience. I want to do more to help them realize their dreams.”
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