Genie Bouchard turned a negative Aussie Open build-up into a positive outcome on Tuesday, outdueling Océane Dodin of France 6-3, 7-6(5) in the Australian Open first round to set up a Thursday meeting with top seed Simona Halep.
Milos Raonic, short on quality preparation time in his Aussie Open build-up, fell victim to a well-measured display by Lukas Lacko, losing 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6(4) to the no. 86-ranked Slovak.
It was a tough loss for Raonic but as he explained afterward he was well aware of his limitations and the possibility he wouldn’t be ready to play his best tennis at this year’s event.
Bouchard, 0-3 in singles at Hopman Cup two weeks ago, and a first round loser to Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the first round in Hobart last week, came into Melbourne Park fit after a glute issue at Hopman Cup – and after doing some homework on her recent performances.
Asked a question about whether she had seen the movie ‘Battle of the Sexes’ she replied, “I’ve been meaning to watch it but instead I’ve been watching old matches of mine and trying to study.”
“I’ve done it in the past but I’m trying to do it a little bit more. I’ve already watched all the matches I played at Hopman Cup last week – just to see how I look on the court. I think it’s a good tool.
“It’s mostly what I’m doing in the points – if I’m playing my aggressive game, if I’m making the right shot selections and playing well tactically – and movement and other things. I’m looking at everything.”
About her one hour and 40-minute Court 2 encounter with Dodin, Bouchard summed up, “she’s a tricky player to play because she’s a little but streaky. She hits big balls but then can make a few errors. I really told myself to stay with her and take my opportunities when I could and I felt like I did that in the second set. It was long and we kept holding and I kept staying with her until I had my chances.”
Dodin, apparently suffering with a vertigo issue, had not played since Quebec City last September and had only been practicing for a month and for no more than 90 minutes at a time. She had a set point at 5-4 in the second set that could have changed things but missed long with a backhand service return off a Bouchard second serve.
There were many positives about Bouchard’s game, including her serving highlighted by 12 aces (and only one double fault).
“It felt solid,” she said about the erstwhile troublesome serve. “I had more aces than I usually do in a match, so that was fun. But it’s a real work in progress. It’s not where I want it to be at all.”
Bouchard has been working with former (1976) French Open finalist Harold Solomon and hitting partner Robbye Poole and claims to be comfortable with her team.
“We’ve worked on a few technical things on my shots,” she said, “also movement wise and on my serve and a few technical things. It’s just that muscle memory of doing it in high pressure moments in a match – kind of going back to what I do well on the tennis court.”
After last week failing to defend points from a semi-final in Sydney a year ago, Bouchard’s ranking has tumbled out of the top-100 to a humbling no. 112.
Asked about her reaction, she smiled and said, “I didn’t see what it was – I’m in my bubble.”
She will surely stay in that bubble for her next match on Thursday against World No. 1 Simona Halep. But there is some uncertainty about the Romanian after she rolled her left ankle early in the second set of her hard-fought 7-6(5), 6-1 win over big-hitting, 17-year-old Australian Destanee Aiava.
The 26-year-old Halep managed to finish the match but looked a little tentative at times with her movement.
“I don’t know now,” she said about the ankle at her media conference after the match. “I felt a big pain on court, but I didn’t have time to go to check it. I just had a shower, I had stretching and I came here.”
“I just want to wait for tomorrow to see how I wake up. From my experience I feel that nothing is broken but still the pain was big. I have to see with the doctors.”
Halep and Bouchard have only played three times – all in 2014. The Romanian won two (Indian Wells and Singapore) but Bouchard won the big one – 7-6(5), 6-2 in the Wimbledon semifinals.
“I know that she’s staying at the baseline,” Halep said about Bouchard’s game style. “She tries to hit very fast. I have to also do the same game – aggressive and trying to move her.”
On Tuesday, Halep admitted to being very nervous in the first set against Aiava’s brutal power – mainly because she had lost in the first round the last two years at Melbourne Park.
At the media conference, an American reporter asked Halep if she thought she might have won that 2014 Wimbledon semifinal against Bouchard if she hadn’t rolled her ankle during the match. “I’ve thought about it,” Halep said. “I’m more than 50 per cent sure that I was close to win the match because I had confidence after Paris (a Roland Garros final loss to Maria Sharapova). I was feeling the ball pretty well. But it happened at the beginning of the match. Then I got scared like today as well. I always get scared when I have a little injury.”
Bouchard said she was excited about playing Halep and testing herself against the World No. 1. She described herself in the match-up as being, “the underdog by far. It’s fun having no pressure.”
She added about her time so far in Australia, “I feel like I’ve made progress the last few weeks. I’m going into matches with the idea that it’s a battle, no matter what happens – something I didn’t do very well last year.”
Bouchard was happy to again have the ‘Genie Army’ again backing her as well as pockets of other supporters throughout the 3,000-capacity stadium.
One local college student and Bouchard aficionado told of getting to Melbourne Park at 9:10 a.m. on Tuesday and then entering the gates and Court 2 at 9:40. He sat all the way through the Raonic-Lacko 11 a.m. match and didn’t finally get to see Bouchard until she arrived on the court after 3:30.
When she did, he came up with a good line about Bouchard’s hot pink outfit and bright yellow shoes, declaring, “you could see Genie from outer space.”
The Raonic loss was quickly put into context when he spoke about what he has been through leading up to the Australian Open. It always looked like a long shot that he would be truly fit because of the wrist surgery after an opening round loss at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in August and a calf problem incurred in Tokyo in October. In Tokyo he basically played one match, only hitting single-handed backhands but managed to beat Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-4. His next completed match was a 6-4, 6-4 loss to red-hot, young Aussie Alex de Minaur in his opening round in Brisbane two weeks ago. That was basically his only ‘normal’ full-arsenal match maybe since August.
He also hurt his right calf after one game of his second match following the Troicki win. Most presumed that was the injury that has recently been holding him back – but it was something else as he explained.
“First the wrist in August and then I tore my calf a little bit in Tokyo (October) and then as soon as I was ready to start in early November I hurt my knee (meniscus) which sort of kept me away like another five or six weeks,” Raonic said.
About Tuesday’s match, he deconstructed, “I wasn’t sharp and I was struggling physically – thankfully not from injury or anything – but physically for fitness. I wasn’t quick. I wasn’t hitting that hard or aggressive so I was the one moving most of the time and I wasn’t able to dictate.”
Raonic broke service the first time the no. 86-ranked Lacko served in the match but not again in any of the Slovak’s 21 ensuing service games.
“I knew it was going to be something along these lines,” Raonic said about the outcome for him at this year’s Australian Open. “I didn’t have the kind of training I would have liked. That’s where I get most of my confidence from. It’s not necessarily from matches, it’s more from feeling that I’ve put in the good work.”
He was by no means ever out of the match against the 30-year-old Lacko and might have had a different fate had he been able to convert two break points at 3-3 in the third set.
But credit to the Slovak – he was deliberate and purposeful throughout, moving the ball around cleverly, including not being afraid to go the redoubtable Raonic forehand – even if he got burned a few times. It was in many ways a perfectly-executed gameplan against an out-of-form Raonic.
After failing to defend the 360 points he earned a year ago by reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals and losing to Rafael Nadal – Raonic’s ranking will now drop from No. 22 to about No. 29.
That’s the bad news. The good news is he appears fit at the moment and should be able to soon go about re-establishing himself on the ATP computer.
As for participating in Davis Cup in Croatia from Feb. 2-4, his comment was simply that it’s “up in the air” for the moment.
Peter Polansky was the third Canadian in action on Tuesday and his Court 8 match got moved to the boondocks – Court 20 – when the previous matches ran long.
He was facing uber-powerful Russian Karen Khachanov and had his chances in the first set when he led 4-1 with a break point for 5-1. But the opportunity lost, the 6-foot-6 Russian began clawing his way back into the match and gradually took over – earning a 7-6(3), 7-6(2), 6-4 victory in two hours and 27 minutes.
“It’s disappointing losing in qualies, getting lucky loser and then losing first round,” Polansky said. “It was a tough match. I had a couple of opportunities in the first set.”
All and all the no. 139-ranked Polansky, 29, was not downcast about the loss or the way he played. “I’m happy with it,” he said. “My level has been pretty high this year so far in all seven matches (two qualifying and one main draw in Brisbane and three qualifying and one main draw at the Australian Open.)
Davis Cup captain Frank Dancevic was a keen observer of the match and noted afterward, “Peter did all the things right. He was going after his forehand the whole match – that was what was going to get him though that match – taking advantage of any opportunity he had to put the guy under pressure, make the guy move. That was one of our conversations before the match.”
Dancevic was impressed with the no. 47-ranked Khachanov’s firepower. “He’s a big hitter – unbelievable,” he said about the 21-year-old Russian. “I couldn’t believe how hard his shots were.”
Polansky will now play next week’s Challenger event in Newport Beach, California. Also in the field is Kei Nishikori – easing his way back into competition following a wrist injury.
NOTE: On Wednesday, it’s Denis Shapovalov vs. No. 15 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Margaret Court Arena following a women’s match that begins the day at 11 a.m. (7 p.m. Tuesday ET in Canada.)
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The reason for taking this picture was the amusing name of the establishment – at least you could say they made no false claims. The guy appearing to run after the woman? That was just a coincidence – and nothing occurred as a result of it.