It figured to be a fairly routine first round of Australian Open qualifying on Tuesday for Genie Bouchard. She had looked impressive in reaching the quarter-finals of the Auckland WTA event last week, pushing world No. 25 Amanda Anisimova to 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. And she was playing a 23-year-old Chinese, You Xiaodi, ranked No. 210, who has never played in the main draw of a Grand Slam event.
In fact in 2019, the No. 210-ranked You, except for seven tournaments in the United States in July and August, played her entire year in Asia. That included her only contact with a Canadian – losing 6-4, 6-3 to No. 218-ranked Katherine Sebov of Toronto at an ITF $25,000 (US) tournament in Japan in March.
From the get-go on Tuesday, Bouchard – in a sparsely-populated, 3000-seat 1573 Arena – dominated and outclass her opponent. She won the opening two points with cleaning hitting right out of the centre of her strings. It augured well but Bouchard’s tennis quickly deserted her and You held serve in that opening game.
Bouchard never really got back on track as You broke serve to 3-1, mostly on unforced errors from the other side of the net, and eventually led 5-2. Bouchard got back to 5-4 down after saving two set points on the You serve at 5-3. When Bouchard served to level the set, the craziness, which would characterize much of the rest of the match, began. In the tenth game with Bouchard serving, You had seven more set points in a six-deuce game without Bouchard ever having a single advantage point. On the seventh, Bouchard committed a backhand unforced error to give You the set in 56 minutes.
In the second set, You took a 2-0 lead as Bouchard’s game was all over the place.
She was totally out of sorts but early in the third game her coach, Jorge Todero (below with Fed Cup captain Heidi El Tabakh), seated in the first row beside the court, said to her “be positive.” She managed to break You’s serve to trail 2-1 before the two players engaged in another whacky game – it went to deuce eight times and Bouchard survived six break points to even the score at 2-2.
It was a day when the tournament would be involved in controversy about allowing play with drifting smoke from the bush fires making conditions officially ‘poor to hazardous.’ And Bouchard and You also had to battle the heat – about 30 degrees.
You led 4-3 in the second set and had a break point for 5-3 but Bouchard saved it by neatly dispatching a forehand winner.
She served for the set twice – at 5-4 and 6-5 – and both times was broken by You. In the tiebreak that ensued, You was even at 3-all until Bouchard finally got separation to 5-3 by winning a point-blank volley exchange at the net.
She took the tiebreak 7-4 but not before the unpredictable You got back to 5-4 with a successful serve-and-volley maneuver – her only one of the match.
At the end of the set, You left the court and Bouchard stayed until she received a visit from the trainer and then the physio (above). Then she ended up leaving the court while You was still away.
“The conditions were tough for sure,” Bouchard would say later, “by the end of the second set I was feeling it was a bit tough to breathe so I got the physio and she gave me some stuff that helped.”
Explaining why she had to leave the court, Bouchard said about the physio, “she was just checking my breathing and stuff and so she wanted to do it off court. She had to go under my top and stuff… so that’s the only reason we went off court.”
Bouchard held serve to start the third set and at the end of the game You limped off in pain as though she had a lower body injury. She received treatment for what looked like an oblique injury and from then on played erratically. Bouchard took a 3-0 lead and You – occasionally serving under-hand and bending over as if she was hurting – would also suddenly explode into big shots. She managed to win a game to 3-1 but that was her last stand.
“I thought the underhand serves were funny,” Bouchard said, able to see the amusing side, after the match. “It was really funny when she got a foot fault on it as well (in the fourth game). It’s in the rules, you’re allowed to do it – why not?” Joking she added, “she actually got me on a couple so I guess I should practice my underhand serve returns.”
In the last three games, You struggled just to win points with a “Sydney or the bush” (all or nothing), as the Aussie say, mentality. Bouchard wrapped up the match 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 to win in two hours and 54 minutes.
It was certainly not pretty but she was able to call on her superior power at times of crisis to pull through. The poor start remained a concern.
“That was definitely crazy,” she said describing a match of wild swings and fluctuations. “I’m disappointed in myself in how I started and acted in that first set. But I managed to kind of figure her game out and get myself back on track so, at the end of the day, the end of the third set is what really mattered.”
Regarding her horrible start, Bouchard added, “I just didn’t get myself going. It’s important for me to have the right energy and I didn’t have that. For me to turn it around – I’m proud of that.”
In the next round, she will play No. 130-ranked Maddison Inglis, a 22-year-old Australian from Perth. On Tuesday, Inglis survived a wild match of her own – defeating Rebecca Sramkova of Slovakia 6-3, 0-6, 7-6(17) – there’s a 10-point tiebreak in the final (and deciding) set – at the Australian Open.
Asked if she knew anything about Inglis, seeded No. 21 in the qualifying, Bouchard said, “no not at all. I know she’s Australian, that’s about it. My coach will get some info on her.”
Bouchard was a very popular interview after the match as print and especially television reporters looked for controversial quotes about the poor smoke conditions in Melbourne, which were highlighted (low-lighted?) by the coughing fits of Slovenian player Dalila Jakupovic who had to retire from her match.
One television reporter, doing an intro for his later appearance on his TV channel, hyped, “smoke causes chaos at the Australian Open.” Less than a minute later he re-considered and did a re-take downgrading to “smoke causes drama at the Australian Open.”
It was obvious the media were hoping Bouchard would be the high-profile player to pump up the gravity of the situation. She was candid with her opinions but probably didn’t respond with quite the extreme reactions the media were hoping for.
“The conditions were tough for sure,” she said. “By the end of the second set I was feeling it was a bit tough to breathe so I got the physio and she gave me some stuff that helped and I’m happy I fought through in that third set.”
Pressed as to whether the matches should have been put on court (after a one-hour delay at first thing at 10 a.m.), Bouchard said, “I’m not sure. I felt good for the first set and a half. Maybe if I’d won in two sets I wouldn’t even be talking about it. It’s definitely a very tricky call for the tournament director.”
And then she was questioned as to whether they had been the worst conditions she had played in. “I don’t think so – no,” she replied. “We’ve definitely had tournaments in areas where there’s a lot of pollution and other things. Obviously with what’s going on our issues are at the bottom of the list compared to everyone who’s really suffering with the fires. (But) as athletes, it’s definitely not the most ideal conditions.”
Finally, she was asked if she had contacted the tournament director to suggest that the matches should have been called off. “That never occurred to me,” Bouchard said. “I’ve never been one to want to stop playing. I definitely started feeling unwell so I had to call the trainer. I just felt it was tough to breathe and I was a bit nauseous.”
Conditions are supposed to improve by Thursday when Bouchard would play her second match. But if for some reason (rain possibly) the qualifying extended to Saturday, poor air quality conditions are forecast to return.
CANADIAN BOYS DOWN UNDER
Vasek Pospisil will play second-seeded Denis Shapovalov in the second round of the ASB Classic in Auckland on Wednesday. Pospisil, who defeated No. 58-ranked Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-4, 6-2 on Tuesday, has been on a good run at tour level, Challenger level and qualifying-event matches. He is 20-2 in his last 22 completed matches and is officially 0-0 with Shapovalov, who’s currently at a career-high No. 13 in the rankings. But the 20-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., won their only meeting at the Challenger tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2017.
Pospisil has yet to beat either Shapovalov or Félix Auger-Aliassime – at 0-3 versus the 19-year-old from Montreal. He lost to him in Indian Wells in 2018, and in 2019 at Wimbledon and Rogers Cup in Montreal.
On Wednesday at the ATP 250 event in Adelaide, Auger-Aliassime, seeded second, but effectively the top seed now that Alex de Minaur has withdrawn, will play No. 96-ranked James Duckworth of Australia. Duckworth, 27, won their only previous meeting 7-5, 7-6(3) in the qualifying at the 2016 Rogers Cup in Toronto when Auger-Aliassime was still 15 years old.
In the qualifying at the Australian Open on Wednesday – matches starting at 10 a.m. (6 p.m. ET in Canada) – Steven Diez plays No. 190 Darian King (BAR) on Court 11 and Brayden Schnur takes on No. 156 Sebastian Ofner (AUT) on Court 15 – both are first match.
Second match on Court 15 will be Leylah Annie Fernandez against No. 113-ranked Patricia Maria Tig (ROU) and fifth match on Court 7 is Peter Polansky versus No. 226 Alexandre Muller (FRA).
AUSSIE POST CARD
This is a time of year when many Canadians would like to be somewhere warm such as Australia – maybe just idling the day away looking out at the beautiful, world-famous Sydney harbour.