It was a happy and sad Friday for Canada’s top two tennis players at the US Open as Genie Bouchard turned back the clock to play probably her most impressive match of the year while Milos Raonic was eliminated, clearly unable to put forth his best effort.
Bouchard, remarkably considering all her subpar performances of the last five months, was stellar in a hard-fought – two hours and 48 minutes – victory over the always combative Dominika Cibulkova, winning 7-6(9), 4-6, 6-3.
Raonic, plagued by back spasms since his first match on Monday, lost 6-2, 7-6(4), 6-3 to Feliciano Lopez. Always clever with numbers, Raonic rated his fitness at the start against Lopez as “20 per cent” worse than for his second-round match against Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday and then estimated he was probably “60 per cent” worse at the end than he had been in his previous two matches.
The Bouchard – Cibulkova match on Louis Armstrong Stadium was a thriller full of unlikely plot turns in front an almost capacity crowd of 10,103 spectators.
After Cibulkova led 4-2 in the opening set, Bouchard rallied to go ahead 5-4 before things were settled in a tiebreak – and what a tiebreak it was.
But first Cibulkova had a golden opportunity to take the set when she had 15-40 on the Bouchard serve ahead 6-5. She set up the point perfectly – running her opponent wide to the forehand side – only to totally botch a forehand swing volley into the net with an open court in front of her. A backhand error into the net on the following point and Bouchard’s destiny in the opening set was soon decided in a tiebreak.
Holding a third set point leading 6-5 in the tiebreak, Cibulkova double-faulted and the craziness of the tiebreak began to spin out of control.
At 7-6, a first set point for Bouchard, Cibulkova hit a deep service return that was called out but reversed on a Hawk-Eye challenge. Bouchard thought she had a play on the ball and protested in vain to umpire John Blom (above).
The plot thickened all the way to 9-all when Bouchard won two points in a row on a Cibulkova drop shot attempt that wound up in a missed backhand volley by the Slovak, and then a forehand UE into the net on the 20th and final point.
It had been a terrifically competitive set with alternately gutsy and inept play by both players. In the end, maybe the difference was Bouchard’s steelier nerves and competitive smarts. In the final two games, and in that fateful second to last point of the tiebreak, Cibulkova tried three drop shots – always risky in tense situations and often an indicator of a player looking for a quick fix and not believing in the bedrock of their baseline game – and lost the point each time.
Bouchard started strong in the second set, taking a 3-1 lead as Cibulkova seemed to suffer a letdown. But the 26-year-old world No. 50 revived and took advantage of a down phase from Bouchard buoyed by winning a lengthy fifth game on her eighth game point. From there on, she was the better player eventually winning the set when Bouchard misfired with a backhand service return wide.
In the third set, Cibulkova broke in the opening game but from that point on it was almost all Bouchard as she got back her mojo and was the more aggressive and consistent competitor. In this reporter’s notes, it was written about Bouchard, “it’s amazing that the spirit, poise, calm, concentration and focus that had been so fragile – a 3-15 record since March heading into the US Open – so recently, could suddenly return to a state that was so reminiscent of the way she played the first half of 2014 when she made the semifinals of the Australian and French Opens and the final of Wimbledon.”
There were wavers against Cibulkova – but just the kind that are part of the normal ups-and-down of any match. There was none of the little-girl-lost look that Bouchard had so often during the mystifying run of poor performances the past few months.
Bouchard would not provide a specific reason for her impressive form against Cibulkova, breaking out of the mold of recent disappointing displays. “It’s not like a magical word or something that you just do overnight. I’ve been trying the whole year to play well – it just doesn’t happen.
“I’m glad though, that I seem to have found more of my rhythm. Jimmy (Connors) helped as well.”
Getting into specifics about the five-time US Open champion, she said about the 63-year-old’s help, “in the kind of mental confidence department, I’d say. He has so much experience, obviously. Just hearing his stories and listening to him speak, you know, I obviously respect him so much. I think he was great mentally when he played.
“Just the little tips and advice he would give me. The fact that he told me he truly believes in me reminded me, ‘hey, I need to believe in myself as well.’ We just needed to build up my confidence a little bit.”
She continued about her association with an all-time great, “it means a lot. He said, ‘you’re too good to be having the results you’re having.’ He’s definitely helped me in my time of need.”
Next for Bouchard will be a re-match with Italian Roberta Vinci – the world No. 43 she lost to so ignominiously (6-1, 6-0) less than two weeks ago in New Haven.
If the same Genie Bouchard who was such a powerful force against Cibulkova on Friday, shows up against Vinci on Sunday, the odds are very strong that the result will be much different. Vinci’s sliced backhand, net rushing and generally unconventional style will require, in Bouchard’s own word, “patience.”
She also mentioned that the result of that match had involved things “beyond tennis,” later explaining, “for me it was just a mental thing. I wasn’t patient. I was doing crazy things. I wasn’t even playing the right way. (I) just kind of got a reality check in that match.”
If she gets past Vinci, the path is set for more revenge for Bouchard who could meet Ekaterina Makarova, who beat her in the US Open round-of-16 a year ago, or Kristina Mladenovic, who had wins over her at Roland Garros on clay and in Birmingham on grass during the spring season in Europe, in the quarter-finals.
As if almost three hours on the court against Cibulkova wasn’t enough for Bouchard, she later went out and won a mixed doubles match with Nick Kyrgios, 5-7, 6-3, [10-3] over Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and Artem Sitak of New Zealand.
Bouchard and Kyrgios led 5-2 and had two set points before losing the opening set.
They rallied and before they headed out for the match tiebreak to decide the outcome, Kyrgios said to Bouchard, “we could have won the first set and this would have been routine. We’re way better than these guys.”
Bouchard has two doubles matches on Saturday – in regular doubles with Elena Vesnina of Russia and then she and Kyrgios will take on the experienced pairing of Martina Hingis and Leander Paes (seeded fourth) in mixed doubles.
Bouchard, who played with lots of energy in the mixed with Kyrgios, said she never considered not playing after her singles.
For the record, she is the only woman remaining who is in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
Openly conceding she felt tired and hoped for a good night’s sleep, Bouchard nonetheless noted, “I’ve been saying that I wanted to play a lot of matches. That’s what I wanted so I can’t complain.”
Asked if she was again the Genie Bouchard of the good old days, she answered, “I don’t know. I just know I’m the Genie Bouchard of now.”
Raonic made a match of it with Lopez until after the second set tiebreak. In that tiebreak, after trailing 4-2, he rallied to 4-all and then served the ninth point. Lopez returned with a backhand that caught the top of net, teetered momentarily, and then plopped over on Raonic’s side. It was a mini-break for Lopez, who served out the set with a 126 mph ace two points later, and a dagger to the heart for Raonic.
About the second set tiebreak and his approach to his predicament in general, Raonic said, “obviously what I had in my capacity wasn’t enough today. I don’t know if I had a decent shot (to win). But I was going to stay there and see what I can make of it.”
From the other end of the court, Lopez gave his version of what evolved. “Beginning of the match, I got an early break,” the 33-year-old Spaniard said. “He was serving 40-love. Then everything was getting better and better for me. In the second set, when I realized that he was suffering or struggling with the back, it was still tough for me. His serve, even if he’s not 100 per cent, it’s tough to read and tough to return. As the match was getting longer and longer, I knew that something with him with his back.”
Asked about the risks of playing – for the second match in a row he had on-court treatment – he replied, “I’m sure many would have told me, when they saw how I was moving, that there’s no point. But that’s not the way I work or process things.”
Looking back at a last few months – including foot surgery for a nerve issue on May 13 – that have been very frustrating in terms of fitness and ability to perform somewhere near his top level, Raonic was asked what he might have done differently. “I guess the only thing I would have done is in the first moment,” he said, “if I knew the foot wasn’t going to make progress, I would have probably have had it (surgery) the first day. Maybe buy myself some time throughout the summer and so forth. (The first time was in April roughly when Monte Carlo was being played.)
“Other than that, I did everything to do the best that I could with as much information as I had.”
With all his problems, Raonic said he is still hopeful he will be able to play the St. Petersburg, Russia indoor tournament beginning on September. 21.
Shamasdin into third round
Adil Shamasdin of Pickering, Ont., and his Austrian partner Philipp Oswald advanced to the third round of the doubles on Friday with a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(3) win over Jonathan Marray of Britain and Marcus Daniell of New Zealand.
The Canadian/Austrian pair bounced back after losing the first set on an Oswald double fault.
They upped their games in the final two sets and, oddly enough, both were impressive in what was supposed to be the other’s strength – Shamasdin served very well while the 6-foot-7 Oswald was effective at the net.
In the third round, Shamasdin/Oswald will face the eighth seeded team of Jamie Murray of Britain and Australian John Peers.
Happy birthday Daniel
Above, Daniel Nestor is being interviewed by TSN’s Mark Masters on Friday, his 43rd birthday.
It is also the 44th birthday of his longtime doubles partner Mark Knowles. Asked on Friday if he’d spoken to Knowles, Nestor said, “no, but we had a nice chat yesterday.”
On the people with whom he shares a September 4th birthday, Nestor said, “Beyoncé.” He added with characteristic humour, “I was fired up when I heard that.”
Inside the US Open
Jimmy Connors, a five-time US Open champion and the only player to win the title on grass (1974), clay (1976) and hard courts (1978, 1982, 1983) is memorialized in the US Open Court of Champions. Here’s his plaque, with its emphasis on his rowdy personality and fighting spirit.
Connors turned 63 last Wednesday.
NOTE: No blog Saturday – back on Sunday.