In a faraway corner of the Rogers Cup tournament grounds stands a silent-auction booth. Under a canopy, one can bid on various bits of sports memorabilia, including an autographed tennis racket and a pair of autographed pictures.
Registered bids late on Tuesday: $450 for the racket, signed by world No. 1 and surefire Hall of Famer Serena Williams; and roughly twice that amount for the photos, which bear the scrawl of 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard.
Nearby is a mini-tennis court where the ticket-holding public can trade shots with members of the Genie Army – the boisterous group of university-aged yahoos who drew worldwide media attention during Bouchard’s breakout moment, a semi-final run at the Australian Open in January.
You know you’re big when your fan club becomes a marketing tool, not just for you but for the nation’s tennis program and the entire tour (as such, Tennis Canada is footing the bill for lodging and feeding Genie’s troops, and the Women’s Tennis Association said it will fly them to Singapore if Bouchard qualifies for the season-ending tour championships).
“So surreal,” observed Sarah Biviano, the lone woman among the 12 original Melbourne-based army members (six of whom are in Montreal this week). “There have been people coming up to us for interviews, photographs, autographs even.”
In the end, though, Genie’s Army didn’t have much to shout about.
There was a loud roar as the fifth-seeded Bouchard entered a Uniprix Stadium centre court darkened by an electrical outage – cue the star power jokes – for her opening match against American qualifier Shelby Rogers, ranked 113th in the world.
It was Bouchard’s first competitive action since reaching the final at Wimbledon, and the rust showed in the first set: She was down 0-2 before the generator-powered lights came on, and stunningly lost 0-6.
The second set started along the same lines – at one point, after missing a shot long, she fired a ball high into the stands in frustration – and even though she prevailed 6-2, Rogers won the third set 6-0. “Of course I felt the pressure [of playing at home],” she said afterward. “I think I probably need to get better accustomed to that. I can learn from this match.”
She added: “It was my first match since Wimbledon. I felt a little as if I wasn’t ready to play a real match.”
Notwithstanding her meek second-round exit (Bouchard had a first-round bye), the Montreal native remains one of world tennis’s most compelling stories. Professional athletes have long been brands unto themselves, but it might fairly be said Bouchard is burgeoning into a full-blown industry.
And that industry’s leaders – chiefly Bouchard, her mother Julie and her U.S.-based agent Sam Duvall – are wrestling with a pleasant but nevertheless challenging problem: managing runaway growth.
Bouchard’s dizzying rise since Australia has prompted a deluge of sponsorship offers and solicitations from brand-consultants and image-makers who are keen to grab a part of the action.
“She’s already a tennis phenom, but she’s also going to be a marketing phenom,” said Tennis Canada chief executive officer Kelly Murumets, who has had a front-row seat for the jockeying since taking the job five months ago.
There are already endorsement deals with heavyweights such as Nike and Coca-Cola, and commercials for Pinty’s, an Ontario-based food concern. Bouchard is also on the August cover of Elle Quebec, a fashion magazine.
Team Bouchard, say people close to it, is wading deliberately, in no great hurry to limit their options at defining their intensely competitive principal’s brand. It’s a wise course, given the stakes involved.
Stacey Allaster, the Ontario-born head of the WTA Tour, said on Tuesday that Bouchard figures prominently in the circuit’s marketing strategy, which is steadily pivoting to emerging stars.
“This is all up to Genie, and I can just tell you she’s has the champion gifts,” Allaster said. “She has a mental capacity the likes of what I see in Serena [Williams], Venus [Williams] and Maria [Sharapova] … there are only a handful of champions who have this.”
Allaster added: “We’re in the business of fans, and Genie understands that.”
The 20-year-old, who hails from the tony Montreal enclave of Westmount, is a big deal at her hometown event, to the extent that multiple Grand Slam champion Venus Williams likened her to “a movie star,” and sister Serena dubbed Bouchard “the future face of tennis” before editing herself.
“She’s already proven to be one of the faces of tennis now. Why wait for the future?” she said.
Evidently, Bouchard also has drawing power. This week’s event in Montreal is expected to set a new attendance record, and Allaster said it is now the WTA’s most successful tournament.
Beyond ticket sales, Tennis Canada is also reaping considerable benefits from the rise of Bouchard and men’s star Milos Raonic, and has fielded dozens of calls from would-be sponsors.
“I have the best job in the world,” laughed Murumets.
But with success comes expectation. As Bouchard expands her renown and fortune – she has made $2.6-million (U.S.) in tournament earnings this year, and a good chunk more from endorsements – she becomes a more indispensable cog in both the national tennis apparatus and the WTA.
“I don’t need one-hit wonders,” said Allaster. “I need a sustained product that’s competitive, with rivalries.”
Thus, Bouchard needs to keep winning. By the way she stormed off the court last night, it was clear the loss stung. The tournament felt some pain, too.
The all-singing, all-chanting Genie Army hopes this is just a hiccup. They have a stake – in this case a trip to Singapore, which will land during end-of-term exams.
“We’re going to defer,” joked Ryan Gibb, who, like Biviano, is an exercise and health-science student at Australian Catholic University.
One of the classes Gibb is following this semester focuses on sports marketing and branding. “I’m getting credit for being here,” he said, laughing.