What to make of Genie Bouchard’s 6-0, 6-3 loss to Vicky Duval in the quarter-finals of her unsuccessful attempt to drop down and gain some confidence by playing the lower-tiered $80,000 ITF event in Indian Harbor Beach, Florida, last week?
It was a huge disappointment but it’s not as though she hasn’t been there before. In 2015, suffering under the weight of expectation following 2014 when she was a Wimbledon finalist, a semi-finalist at the Australian and French Opens and achieved a career-best No. 5 ranking, Bouchard was a dreadful 3-15 from Indian Wells through until the start of that year’s US Open.
In Indian Harbor Beach last week, the loss to Duval was rough but Bouchard hadn’t really looked good in barely beating No. 601-ranked qualifier Brianna Morgan, 23, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 and No. 305 Anhelina Kalinina, 20, 7-5, 6-4 in her previous two matches.
The disastrous display against the No. 896-ranked Duval can be viewed in the context of a back story. Duval’s low ranking was a result of having Hodgkins Lymphona in 2014 and, though she played four events through Wimbledon last year, she had not played since because she didn’t feel as if she was as fit as she should be. Secondly, while they hadn’t played as pros, Bouchard had lost to the 21-year-old American 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the second round of the 2012 US Open junior event as the No. 3 seed and reigning Wimbledon junior champion – a match when she appeared to show the pressure of her new-found status because of her highly-publicized breakthrough two months earlier at the All England Club.
Bouchard has to be given the benefit of the doubt if she is carrying an injury or the after-effects of an injury. But if she isn’t, what should she do now?
There are probably as many opinions about that as there are people following her career, but it’s hard to imagine her going to play next week’s WTA International Series event in Istanbul, Turkey, which she has committed to. Surely some kind of step back is now needed – a time to reassess and regroup – rather than rush to another tournament with her confidence at a low ebb.
Watching her play it’s obvious she needs to be able to play more freely, to let her natural ability flow uninhibited by doubts. As any tennis player knows, when you’re missing basic shots and you have no idea why that’s happening, it’s the ultimate frustration.
She and the people around her will have to have a good hard think about what’s happening, and what should be done next.
Here’s an idea. When she went into the 2015 US Open playing abysmally with that 3-15 record, she hooked up with the legendary Jimmy Connors for a few sessions before the tournament began. He seemed to boost her spirits and she then did play well, winning three matches, including 7-6(9), 4-6, 6-3 over Dominika Cibulkova in the third round to set up a round-of-16 match with Roberta Vinci, the eventual runner-up. That win over Cibulkova was, of course, earlier in the evening of her fateful fall and subsequent concussion in the women’s locker room.
The 64-year-old Connors, who won eight Grand Slam titles and held the ATP’s No. 1 ranking for 268 weeks, was arguably the best competitor in the history of men’s tennis.
Some new consultations with him and his feisty, us-against-the-world attitude might just be one thing that could help Bouchard revive her game and get back on track.
MARIA – THE HYPE BEGINS
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Maria Sharapova’s return next week in Stuttgart is the most highly-anticipated comeback in tennis since Monica Seles played in Toronto in 1995 a total of 26 months after her April, 1993, stabbing in Hamburg.
Sharapova is returning after her original two-year suspension by an independent tribunal of the International Tennis Federation was shortened on appeal to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland.
So Sharapova comes back next Wednesday, April 26th, exactly a week after she turns 30 tomorrow (Wednesday).
There has been lots of controversy about her being able to play the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix because her suspension doesn’t end until the Wednesday, two days after actual main-draw play begins on Monday. It’s blatantly clear the tournament sponsor, which gives a car to the winner every year and is a personal sponsor of Sharapova, was desperate to have her be able to play the event.
Because it's really bright out past midnight 😂🕶 pic.twitter.com/UHRJLv6EUn
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) April 17, 2017
Last December the decision to allow Sharapova (above her tweet from Monday) to play Stuttgart was made after long, laborious discussions at WTA headquarters. It’s a big boost for the tournament – played on indoor red clay and widely viewed as the first major event in the build up to Roland Garros – and there will be a huge amount of publicity surrounding the glamorous Russian’s return.
But it remains that the rules – or the lack of precise rules – have been seriously flaunted to allow her to participate. It strains even modest credulity to think that a player under suspension at the time the draw is made – on Saturday – is eligible to compete in the event.
On Sharapova’s side, it certainly looks now like her candour last March in coming clean and announcing that she had not been aware that Meldonium had become a banned substance in 2016 and played the Australian Open while taking it, worked against her.
American Vavara Lepchenko tested positive for Meldonium in January, 2016, at the first event of the year in Brisbane. She claimed she had stopped taking the banned substance around December 20 of 2015 and subsequently had her prize money and ranking points for Brisbane taken away but wound up only serving an unannounced provisional suspension in the March-April period before returning in Rome in May.
Had Sharapova made a similar claim – that the positive test at the 2016 Australian Open was related to residual effects of her taking it the previous month when the drug was legal – she likely would not have had anything as severe at the 15 months she eventually served.
But that’s all water under the bridge now and Sharapova, who got over a lingering left wrist injury in the first couple of months of her suspension last spring, appears fired up, fit and eager to play.
“I always have the impression that I’m an artist, a performer – the court is my stage,” she said in a recent interview with the French publication Le Parisien. “I walk from the locker room down the hallway or the tunnel, they open the curtain and ‘voila’ – me against the other person. I love that and it’s all I think about. What I feel when I play tennis, the desire to get better, to become a champion again, that’s what still keeps me going today.”
Most people know by now that Sharapova, because of her suspension, will not even be allowed on the tournament site until Wednesday the 26th, the final day for opening-round matches, and the day of her first match. (With byes to the top four seeds, probably the three toughest players she could potentially face right off the bat are No. 6-ranked Garbine Muguruza, No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska or No. 9 Svetlana Kuznetsova.)
She will surely find somewhere to practice in Stuttgart with similar playing conditions. BTW – the tournament website claims that the red clay in the aptly-named Porsche Arena “comes from France and its grain size of 0.1 mm is the same that is used at the French Open.”
FED CUP: CANADA V KAZAKHSTAN
When Canada faces Kazakhstan in a Fed Cup World Group II playoff this weekend in Montreal, its hopes will likely rest on Bianca Andreescu (above foreground with team physio Marlene Nobrega on Monday) of Mississauga, Ont., and Montrealer Françoise Abanda.
The precocious 16-year-old Andreescu, making her Fed Cup debut, almost singlehandedly lifted Canada into the World Group II playoff by winning all four of her singles matches, as well as two doubles matches, when Canada won the Americas Zone Group I round-robin, qualifying event in Mexico in February.
She has two $25,000 ITF pro titles so far in 2017 – Rancho Santa Fe, California, in February, and Santa Margherita di Pula in Italy last month – and her 15-3 record this year has moved her WTA ranking up from No. 294 to No. 188.
Abanda, 20, has struggled in 2017, going just 3-7 but she has been known to rise to the occasion as she did exactly two years ago in Fed Cup at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal when she upset world No. 33 Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Also on the team are 18-year-old Katherine Sebov of Toronto, ranked No. 281 and Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa, 25 and currently No. 20 in doubles.
The Kazakhs will rely on No. 31-ranked Yulia Putintsva, a feisty 22-year-old who is 5-foot-4, and 5-foot-11 Yaroslava Shvedova, 29, ranked No. 51 in singles and No. 13 in doubles.
Also on the team is 32-year-old Galina Voskoboeva who ranks No. 271 in singles but is likely only to be involved in doubles where she ranks No. 116 and has been as high as No. 26 in 2012. Also on the team is No. 350-ranked Kamila Kerimbayeva, 21.
Abanda moved up six spots in Monday’s latest WTA rankings to No. 186, which puts her just ahead of Andreescu at No. 188. That means that, as the No. 2 Canadian, Andreescu will play Kazakh No. 1 Putintseva, something of a drama queen, in the opening day singles while Abanda would face the veteran Shvedova.
The top three Kazakh players, Putintseva, Shvedova and Voskoboeva, are Russian natives born in Moscow but eligible to become citizens and represent Kazakhstan because it was part of the former Soviet Union.
The first day’s action starts at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday with two singles matches and continues at noon on Sunday with two singles and a doubles indoors at STADE IGA in Montreal. Both days are being live-streamed at Sportsnet.ca and televised in French on TVA Sports 2.
— We Are Tennis France (@WeAreTennisFR) April 14, 2017
Anyone who has played tennis on clay understands how Jiri Veseley felt when this happened to him.
NOTE: Blogs from the Fed Cup in Montreal will begin Friday, the day of the draw ceremony for the weekend’s matches.