There was a reserved, if somewhat clipped dignity about Genie Bouchard when she met with the media less than an hour after her Roland Garros opening round 6-4, 6-4 loss to Kristina Mladenovic of France on Tuesday.
She is one lost tennis player at the moment and it had to be hard for her to face the assembled reporters, all of whom had the same thing on their minds – what’s wrong? Nonetheless, she laid bare her feelings in a sometimes curt but genuine manner that basically revealed that she is just as mystified as everyone else.
“Honestly, I don’t know what to say,” were the first words out of her mouth and that certainly is not much help in figuring out what has led to a dreadful continuum of matches since a 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4 loss to qualifier Lesia Tsurenko in the third round of Indian Wells in March – eight losses in nine outings.
She obviously did not see it coming. “I thought it would be like last year, or better,” she said about her thoughts entering this year after a 2014 where she reached two Grand Slam semifinals (Australian and French Opens), one Grand Slam final (Wimbledon) and had a career-high ranking of No. 5 in October. “I’ve learned a lot these days, and I’ve learned to be patient with me and my results because I know I can have difficult periods.”
In the Court Suzanne Lenglen match on Tuesday, there were two points that tell the tale of the way Bouchard is playing these days. Facing break point at 3-all in the first set, she collapsed (a favourite descriptive of this writer to describe a choky unforced error) a forehand into the net. Then, after saving three consecutive set points when Mladenovic served for the set at 5-4, 40-love, the 22-year-old Frenchwoman obviously got nervous and allowed Bouchard back to the safe haven of deuce. The momentum was clearly with her against a suddenly shaky Mladenovic. But she then proceeded to dump a routine second serve forehand service return in the net to make it advantage Mladenovic. Another forehand miss on the following point and Mladenovic pocketed the set in 46 minutes.
Those two forehand misses at critical junctures are the story of Bouchard these days. It’s almost a certainty that a year ago when she was playing fearlessly and conquering those difficult moments, she would have made those two shots, especially against inferior opponents. But not now.
Needless to say, being a Canadian journalist, yours truly is continually asked what is going on with Bouchard. Much better tennis minds than mine are trying to find the answer to that question. Basically, I think that the source of her erratic play is that synapses in her brain are misfiring, but who can possibly know why? In the fourth game of the second set, she flinched (another favourite descriptive) a forehand miles over the baseline for no apparent reason. Who knows what synapses misfired or failed to connect but something is short-circuiting in the hardwiring of her game at the moment.
“I do think that when I’m playing my best tennis is when I’m being more instinctive,” she said. “I think that’s something I need to get back, just trusting myself because I know I can play well.”
There’s no question there is less zip on her serve and certainly on her ground strokes as well. She should not be ‘out-winnered’ 24-19 by the No. 44-ranked Mladenovic. That would not have happened playing the brand of aggressive tennis that was her signature a year ago in the early rounds of Grand Slam events. Nor should she have won a measly 51 per cent of first serve points compared to 77 per cent for her opponent.
There was also a certain alertness and acuity that wasn’t there. Mladenovic hit a bucketful of drop shots – 15 in all – and was able to win eight of them. Usually players read drop shots better as the match goes on, but not Bouchard on Court Suzanne Lenglen, and not on Tuesday.
Several foreign reporters, a few who saw her firsthand in Madrid and Rome over the past few weeks, have approached me since my arrival here suggesting they think Bouchard is looking thin and doesn’t have the same muscle-tone as when she was at her best.
And this string of poor results has not been to a murderers row of opposition – with the exception of No. 10-ranked Carla Suarez Navarro (against whom she held a match point and double-faulted) in Rome, there was Barbora Strycova (23) in Madrid and Mladenovic (44). But the other five players she has lost to were ranked No. 66 or higher. Two – Andreea Mitu of Romania and Tatjana Maria of Germany – were over 100.
Looking back at recent times for a comparable situation, there is the case of Nicole Vaidisova of Czech Republic. At 17, she reached the semifinals of the 2006 French Open and was within two points of beating Svetlana Kuznetsova for a spot in the final against eventual winner Justine Henin. In May of the following year, she reached a career high ranking of No. 7.
Then, within three years, she was out of tennis – a victim of being unable to control her nerves on court. Currently, at 26, she is attempting a comeback and has a No. 288 ranking.
Vaidisova is an extreme case that extended over a long time. Bouchard has only been in the doldrums for a couple of months, not a couple of years like the Czech. More importantly, Vaidisova played a more mindless, big-bashing kind of tennis than Bouchard and was not comparable to the Montrealer in terms of being a tough or willful competitor. She relied on the innate physicality of her power and youthful exuberance and couldn’t back it up when it came to showing the resolve and resilience to deal with inevitable adversity.
More recently Sloane Stephens of the U.S. reached the 2013 Australian Open semifinals and a high ranking of No. 11 later that year. Since, there has been a fall related to injuries and indifference. She bottomed out at No. 45 in March of this year and appears to be progressing with a current ranking of No. 40 under the guidance of Bouchard’s former coach Nick Saviano.
Looking at Bouchard’s decline the past few months, one could speculate that it was a mistake for her to play Fed Cup in April in Montreal against Romania indoors on a hard court. She had just suffered humiliating losses – 6-0, 7-6(4) to No. 113-ranked Maria in Miami and 6-3, 6-1 to No. 66 Lauren Davis in Charleston. It was as if she thought she could, against a Romanian team without world No. 3 Simona Halep, get right back up on the bicycle and try to snap out of the slump. Instead, she suffered two devastating defeats in her hometown of Montreal against No. 69 Alexandra Dulgheru and No. 104 Mitu. Arguably, a rest period followed by practice for the European clay-court season might have been a wiser remedy for renewal at the time.
After Tuesday’s loss, she was asked about how she felt when the score was 3-all in the first set of a seemingly even contest to that point with Mladenovic. “I still knew I was far off from how I can play,” she responded. “I was in there, and I just felt like I couldn’t be as relaxed as I wanted to on the court.”
Bouchard is still in Roland Garros, playing the mixed doubles with veteran Max Mirnyi, but as far as her singles goes, she summed up, “I have no expectations for the foreseeable future – just going to take it one day at a time and just try to slowly work my way back up.”
Bouchard managed to show a little humour toward the end of her media conference when asked if she had talked to her coach Sam Sumyk. “No, we haven’t talked yet,” she replied, “I’m procrastinating about it a little bit.”
Vasek Pospisil could have been excused for not putting in a full effort in his opening-round match against Joao Sousa of Portugal on Tuesday.
A serious ankle sprain and bruise had kept him off the court for nearly two weeks and he didn’t play points in practice until last Saturday.
Against a sound clay-court player like Sousa, runner-up in the red-clay ATP 250 event in Geneva last Saturday, he was already starting with a handicap.
But he battled full-out and had a break point in the second game of the match for a quick start but couldn’t convert. But he did show a little pain when he landed on his left foot in that same game. In the seventh game of the second set, he landed and hunched over, the most obvious pain he showed during the match.
He would later say he was about “80 per cent” fit. The moment of most obvious frustration during the match came in the second set when he looked at his support group and exclaimed, “I can’t move my legs. How am I supposed to play aggressively?”
But he did play aggressively and boldly rallied from 5-3 down in the second set to force a tiebreak. It stood dead even at 5-all when the 26-year-old Portuguese forced the play and managed to pull it out 7-5.
The third set was basically one-way traffic and many Pospisil supporters may actually have been pleased about that. He’s in the doubles this week with Jack Sock – they play their opening round late Wednesday against Joao Souza of Brazil and Victor Estrella Burgos of Dominican Republic. As well, he will want to be healthy for the grass-court season and Canada’s Davis Cup quarter-final in Belgium from July 17-19. Captain Martin Laurendeau was courtside on Court 3 on Tuesday and it’s not hard to imagine that he was praying there would not be any aggravation of the ankle issue for the man who is the workhorse of his team.
On the whole, it was a decent performance, considering Pospisil had so little preparation, was recovering from an injury and faced a tough opponent. At times he took the play to Sousa with the kind of forward-moving tennis that has become his calling card.
“I played with caution,” Pospisil admitted. He added that he had to somewhat compensate for the after-effects of the injury.
“Doubles isn’t as physical as singles,” he added about his hopes with Sock.
They are seeded No. 2 and, if healthy, could have a good run at Roland Garros.
Maria Sharapova looked on impassively after picking out her boyfriend’s token as the No. 10 seed at the draw ceremony last week. It looks like she did the 24-year-old Bulgarian no favours as he was beaten in the first round on Tuesday 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-1 by Jack Sock.
This is a frequent sight in the City of Light at this time of year – tourists alighting in a new city and checking out a map to find their way around Paris by Metro. The stop in this case is Cadet in the 9ieme arrondissement.