What’s wrong with Genie Bouchard? Go back to 2013
Most players take years to climb the ranks and learn how to deal with fortune and fame. Genie Bouchard, on the other hand, rocketed very fast, very soon.
In 2014, the WTA, corporate sponsors and global media anointed her the second coming of Maria Sharapova, even though Bouchard only won one WTA event (Nuremberg 2014), and went deep into three Grand Slams without facing bonafide top ten players until semi-final rounds. Has her game kept up with her fame?
In late 2013, Bouchard, then 19, was ranked 32nd in the world. It was an amazing achievement for a teenager from Canada, long starved of world-class talent.
It was easy to see her potential, and her shortcomings. Like other up-and-coming players, she had flashes of brilliance, but also lapses of mediocrity. She was emotionally shaky, but also supremely talented and ambitious.
At the Toray Pan-Pacific Open in Japan, for example, she got ahead of Sloane Stephens 5-0, then lost the next 7 games and the set. With a typhoon brewing, she then came from down 2-4 and 3-5 to win the next two sets, stealing the match with five straight games.
Her high-risk strategy could make her look like a champion and a junior in the same match. Taking the ball early, she would dictate the point, knock her opponent off balance, and smoke winners at sharp angles. But she would also mis-time the ball and spray shots wide or long. She would double fault, then hit stunning winners to save key points. She would hesitate and dump balls into the net, but she would also brim with confidence and challenge older stars such as Jelena Jankovic, Venus Williams and Samantha Stosur.
This was the mercurial Bouchard I saw in Japan.
These days, Genie is still playing like that. Her opening loss to Alexandra Dulgheru, 25, in the Fed Cup in Montreal — her fourth loss in a row — was a case in point. Before her hometown crowd, Bouchard made 46 unforced errors: mis-hitting short-hops, smacking returns into the net, sailing forehands wide, missing ill-conceived sharp angles from mid-baseline, trying to hit unlikely winners from the wings, and generally making questionable decisions throughout the match.
These were the kind of “rookie mistakes” befitting of someone age 21.
The problem is that Bouchard — who has only won a minor event, remember — created unrealistic expectations by storming through Melbourne and Roland Garros (semis in both), and then Wimbledon (finals) on her way to a number 5 ranking. She gained about 2800 WTA points in those three events, enough to catapult her about 25 places in the rankings. Suddenly, people unfamiliar with tennis were hastily comparing her with Maria Sharapova and predicting her imminent rise to the top.
But many overlooked how she got there. Fortuitous draws certainly helped. In Australia, she faced no big names until beating Ana Ivanovic in three sets in the quarters before losing a semi-final to Li Na 2-6, 4-6. At the French Open, she beat three lower-ranked players and then upset Angelique Kerber and Carla Suarez-Navarro (7-5 in the third) before losing a semi to Sharapova. The draw opened up for her again at Wimbledon. She only had to beat Kerber (currently ranked 14th) to reach the semi-finals, and then surprised Simona Halep (then age 22) 7-6, 6-2 in the semis before losing to Petra Kvitova in the finals 3-6, 0-6.
Many people, who wrongly assumed she would soon reach number one, then turned against Bouchard after an embarrassing 0-6, 6-2, 0-6 loss to unheralded Shelby Rogers in Montreal amid unprecedented hype for tennis in Canada.
Now many critics are giving up on Bouchard. She’s lost five matches in a row to players ranked below 60. She looks pale and thin, and it’s not clear if this is from injuries or the demands of her budding modeling career.
The inevitable rise and fall of expectations isn’t Genie’s fault. Using the element of surprise, she took advantage of opportunities — opponents injured or off their game — at the 2014 Grand Slams, and her celebrity quality and dazzling looks inspired an army of fans.
But in the past year, she hasn’t been able to improve her game or vary her tactics enough to trump opponents and their coaches who’ve had amply time to study — and exploit — Bouchard’s weaknesses such as impatience, unreliable serves and forehands, and a seeming inability or unwillingness to alter a one-dimensional style of play. Dulgheru simply did what others now do: take Bouchard’s punches, return the ball deep at various heights and spins, and let Genie beat herself.
Bouchard, once again, is playing like a 32nd ranked player. Compared to the public’s unrealistic expectations, she’s having a terrible year. If she flops in Paris and London this summer, she could quickly drop out of the top 20. But she’s still better than almost every other player in the world, of any age.
While many speculators blame Genie’s problems on her love life, modeling career or social-media acumen, she’s most likely just going through a developmental stage of her tennis career. She’s trying to find a consistent winning formula, and it’s not there yet. If she keeps working hard, and expanding her repertoire of shots and tactics, she’ll likely enjoy a long career in the top 10. She could also succumb to injuries or other issues that plague many players, no matter their age or appearance.
For now, tennis fans should see Genie for what she really is: a young talent with a long way to go. Being top 10, top 20 or top 50 is still a great achievement for a 21-year old from Canada.
(words and images Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media. All rights reserved)