TEBBUTT: EUGENIE, MILOS MAKE FINAL FOUR
Wednesday was a day many thought might eventually come again in either men’s or women’s singles, but certainly not with two players together, and probably not at the grandest of all Grand Slams – Wimbledon.
Carling Bassett, aged 16 in 1984, got to the semifinals of the US Open, the only Canadian to ever make it that far since 1968 and the post ‘open’ era of tennis.
Bassett was highly-motivated and driven, much like Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic, and left home in Toronto at age 12 to pursue her tennis dream at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
That was more than three decades ago but on the 30th anniversary of her reaching that US Open semifinal – losing to Chris Evert – Bouchard, with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Angelique Kerber, and Raonic, beating Nick Kyrgios 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6(4), have repeated her achievement – twice over!
Both have been impressive in five matches throughout the tournament, with Bouchard not dropping a single set and Raonic only losing two – the first one of his round-of-16 match with Kei Nishikori and the opener against Kyrgios.
Bouchard gets right back into action on Thursday against Simona Halep while Raonic has a day off before facing seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer on Friday. By making it to the semi-final, Bouchard is guaranteed of reaching a career-high ranking of No. 8 – tying her with Bassett for highest ever for a Canadian woman or man.
With 20-year-old Bouchard, there will surely come a day when she has some self-doubts in critical situations during matches.
But at the moment, her mind and motor skills seem perfectly in sync in times of the greatest pressure and anxiety.
During her clinically executed victory over Angelique Kerber on Wednesday, four pressure points occurred fairly early – with Bouchard serving at 3-all in the first set.
She faced all four boldly with clarity, hitting aggressive shots on each of them to bail herself out.
Bouchard did not lose another game in that set and, with a break in game three of the second set, and again to lead 4-1, she was never really threatened again. There was the tricky matter of a break point for Kerber in the final game of the match – but she responded by saving it with her trusty forehand swing volley, hitting a winner.
In this writer’s notebook, it was scribbled at that point, “whenever faced with adversity, she simply ups the tempo.”
“I try not to even think about specifically what the score is – I try to go out on each point and play the right way,” she said about those four break points saved, which were listed on the point-by-point match record as ‘winner FH approach,’ ‘winner FH volley,’ ‘forced FH drive’ and ‘forced FH drive.’ “And, you know, when I try to go for it, more (than) usually it works in my favour. So I’m going to always try to do that every single point.”
Also scribbled in the notebook was, it was another normal Bouchard match “and you can just pencil in the score.”
That was 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 12 minutes and there was the usual quota of bold Bouchard service returns – Kerber more than once threw up her arms in frustration as the Montrealer pounded her serves back with backhand and forehand winners.
The winners to unforced ratio for Bouchard was 29/20 compared to 17/14 for Kerber. While Kerber’s is marginally better, it’s probably preferable to have the higher totals because it shows that the aggression is more sustained and forceful from that player’s side of the court.
Next for Bouchard will be a match-up with Halep in the semifinals – a stage that Bouchard has reached for the third Grand Slam in a row.
It is familiar in the context of this season – but also in the context of her whole life with lofty tennis goals. “When I was nine, I decided to be a professional tennis player,” she said, “so for me, a professional tennis player is succeeding – Top 20, Top 10. As I started playing more and more, I really had concrete dreams of winning Grand Slams.”
“Every time I play I realize ‘okay, I can play at this level, and play with these top girls.’ Playing my first full year on the pro tour last year really showed me that.”
Thursday’s semifinal against Halep, which Bouchard hopes might have some notable Royals in the Centre Court Royal Box, will be a fascinating encounter.
Bouchard is basically a full-bore, go-for-it type of player, while the 5-foot-6 Halep is probably a better mover but not as powerful as her four inches taller opponent.
“She’s showed that she can also beat the good players,” Kerber said about Bouchard on Wednesday. “She’s young, she plays great tennis, she’s aggressive.”
There is an ingratiating, innocent girlish quality about Halep, who has had a fairly low-profile ascension to the No. 3 spot in the rankings. “I played my best today and I was enjoying very much Centre Court,” she said right after beating Sabine Lisicki by the remarkable score of 6-4, 6-0 – remarkable because she trailed 4-1 in the first set.
“I’m really happy I could win in two sets so tomorrow I want to be ready to play well again. I’m happy how I feel on court. I feel good and I move well.”
Halep is the top remaining seed at No. 3 – Bouchard is 10 slots lower at No. 13 – and was asked afterward if she feels that pressure. “It was the same thing in the French Open,” where she lost to Maria Sharapova in a hard-fought 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4 final. “So now I have experience and I don’t have pressure. I will try my best. I love tennis and I just want to play.”
In the round-of-16 at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March, Halep beat Bouchard 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in a very competitive match. Bouchard led 4-3 in the final set before the Romanian made a final push that just came down to one or two points.
“I felt like I had chances, it was really close,” Bouchard said about the match played on the new No. 2 stadium at Indian Wells. “I learned a little bit about her game. She can change direction really well on the court. I’m going to have to be ready for that, really just try to go for it and take my chances.”
A blonde with ambition if there ever was one, Bouchard added, “leave it all on the court. It’s the semis, so I’m going to expect the toughest match ever.”
When her coach Nick Saviano was asked about the Halep match-up, at first he didn’t even mention the Romanian’s name.
“I just hope, as I hope with every match, that she plays as well as she possibly can on every point,” Saviano said about his player. “If she does that, she’ll have a good opportunity.
“That’s what I hope for, that she just continues to be aggressive and go for her shots all the way through. If she does that, I’ll be happy.”
Pressed about the Indian Wells match, he insisted, “it’s irrelevant, it’s a lifetime ago. It’s two Grand Slam semifinals ago, she (Bouchard) is improving every week – Halep’s been improving. She got to the final of the French. That match is ancient history.”
Halep, who turns 23 in September, and Bouchard, 20, are considered part of the new generation of WTA players. About their rise and its context, Bouchard said, “it’s a normal kind of evolution of things, the great champions get a bit older and the new ones start coming in. I think it’s a great time for women’s tennis.”
It is also a remarkable time for men’s tennis with Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov respectively taking on Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in Friday’s semifinals.
After his loss to Dimitrov on Wednesday, defending champion Andy Murray offered his thoughts on generation next: “If you play a player like a Kyrgios, or Dimitrov or Raonic and those guys, and if you don’t play well, it’s tough to win those matches now. Whereas before maybe, when they were younger and a bit inexperienced, you can still find ways to come through against then. But now that they’re getting more experience and improving, it’s tough to do that.”
It may never be the same, and it is intriguing that 23-year-olds Raonic and Dimitrov have made their Grand Slam final four breakthroughs together.
Their emergence was a main theme of Raonic’s post match interview, and he spoke about it but pointed to another event that has inspired him and his contemporaries. “I think the one result that stands out the most this year has to be, in my eyes, and maybe the other guys as well, is what Stan (Wawrinka) did at the beginning of the year (at the Australian Open),” he said. “I think that beating Novak and Rafa in that same time, I think that one was the biggest sigh of belief and relief for a lot of guys. I was watching in Tokyo during Davis Cup. You sort of felt like ‘okay, he did it. I feel like I can compete with this guy. Why can’t I do it?’”
About the altered perception of him and his fellow young guns, Raonic added, “You see it more in people’s attitude when they step on the court. It’s a big difference to where probably a lot of guys were maybe a year ago. It’s an even bigger difference to where guys were two, three, four, five years ago when there was a very tight stranglehold on who was winning those big tournaments.”
Against Kyrgios on No. 1 Court of Wednesday, Raonic probably was the better player in all four sets, but he lost the first because he failed to convert any of the four break points he had before the tiebreak – Kyrgios had none up to that point.
A set-up forehand missed into the net when he had a chance for the first mini-break at 3-all in the tiebreak may have cost him the set.
But just as in the round-of-16 match against Nishikori on Tuesday, Raonic got stronger as the match went on.
He showed none of the histrionics that are part of the Kyrgios persona on court.
A much more businesslike individual, Raonic just kept imposing his big game – in the end he won 144 points to 111 for the game, gangly Aussie. That’s a sizeable margin. Adding in 39 aces, he had 73 winners to just 34 for Kyrgios, who had 70 in his four-set upset of Nadal a day earlier.
That match surely tired out Kyrgios. “I think it had a big impact,” Kyrgios would say afterward. “I was struggling physically halfway through the second set. I was feeling sore in a couple of places.
“But I’m not going to take any credit away from him. He served unbelievable. I thought I came out strong on his first serve game. I made him earn that. All the other service games it looked like he was in such a rhythm that I just couldn’t do anything out there.”
Still, Raonic had to be careful – Kyrgios huffs and puffs when he plays and can looked pretty spent, and then revive. Against Richard Gasquet in the second round, he almost appeared to be hyper-ventilating at times, but he hung on, saved nine match points and won. Same against Nadal, he looked out of it at times, but pulled off the upset.
During a media conference on Wednesday morning involving five former Australian greats – Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Neale Fraser and Ashley Cooper – Newcombe made a specific reference to the fact Kyrgios is never out of a match, no matter how he looks.
He certainly is a different kind of cat. Although he claimed on Tuesday not to have a girlfriend, he was seated outside the player cafeteria at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday before the match chatting with an attractive, blonde-haired junior player.
Raonic is a much more structured guy – no way he would be that casual when a match could be less than an hour from starting.
And he was taking nothing for granted after a 6-3, 7-6(1), 6-3 victory over the Aussie in the first round of the French Open five weeks ago, especially after his spectacular play in knocking off Nadal.
“It was a very difficult match today,” Raonic said. “A lot of not knowing what to expect because I knew I played him three (five) weeks ago – but it was different circumstances this time around. I was happy with the result I was able to get out of it.”
Now it will be Federer in Friday’s semifinals. Although he is 0-4 against the great Swiss, all the matches have been competitive and Raonic must be considered in the ascension while Federer is either plateau-ing or in decline. “I’m playing a guy that is standing in my way of what I want to achieve,” Raonic said. “I’ve got to focus on everything that’s there…on the situation, how best to deal with it to give myself the best possibilities to achieve what I want.”
Always the logical thinker, Raonic gave a considered and revealing response when asked to situate the historic nature of both him and Bouchard reaching a Grand Slam semifinal. “To see what Genie has been doing, not just here but at the last two Grand Slams, is great. I’ve always wanted the same things and more for myself always. Not just because she did it, but ever since I’ve competed in my first Slam.
“It wasn’t always a reality or it wasn’t always reasonable – but I wanted those things. To be able to put myself in this situation means a lot.
“I’m sure that the outbreak and the response back home is much more magnitude than anything else that’s happened or that’s resonated. I think not only her last two Slams, but us doing it at the same time here is bigger than anything we’ve done in Davis Cup, anything we’ve done in Fed Cup.
“It has a bigger audience, a bigger meaning, a bigger recognition.”
How much bigger it gets remains to be seen over the last four days of Wimbledon.
DOUBLES DAY NINE
Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock advanced to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon on Wednesday with a 7-6(3), 7-6(3), 6-4 victory over Mate Pavic of Croatia and Andre Sa of Brazil.
Pospisil, who lost in the first round of the singles to Robin Haase, was a happy camper after he and Sock, unseeded, eliminated another unseeded pair.
“It’s pretty awesome – the quarters of the Wimbledon doubles,” Pospisil said afterward. “I wasn’t expecting that but Jack and I are really dangerous. We serve big. He’s a great player and we play well as a team. So anything can happen.”
Is he surprised they are doing so well together? “Yes and no,” Pospisil replied. “We both have big games and we’re both good doubles players, so about that I’m not surprised. But then the personalities – you’re not sure how it’s going to work out but we click really well. We get along great. That’s why we play so well together.”
Are the grass courts a help? “I think we could play just as well on any other surface but it helps our serves for sure,” Pospisil said.
Next for the Canadian/American duo will be second seeds Alexander Peya of Austria and Bruno Soares of Brazil.
Another win for Pospisil and Sock, and the same for Daniel Nestor and his partner Nenad Zimonjic, and the two Canadians could meet in the semifinals.
ABANDA INTO THIRD ROUND
Francoise Abanda continued her quest for the Wimbledon junior girls title with a 6-0, 6-4 victory on Wednesday over Seone Mendez of Australia.
Next for the 17-year-old from Montreal, seeded No. 7, will be No. 12 Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic on Court 10 first thing on Thursday morning.
Rafael Nadal may not be at Wimbledon ’14 anymore, but he still has lots of fans. For them, he’s a picture of their man relaxing last Sunday during a practice session at Wimbledon with his great pal Marc Lopez.