Eugenie Bouchard looked comfortable under the lights of Centre Court, as the new face of Canadian women’s tennis earned a convincing first-round victory at the Rogers Cup.
The 19-year-old from Westmount, Que., Canada’s top-ranked female on Tour, confidently beat Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova 6-3, 6-1, to earn a second-round meeting with defending champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic.
“Time to take the defending champ down,” said Bouchard, in her rookie season on the WTA Tour. “Obviously, [Kvitova] is a great player, she’s won a [Grand] Slam [Wimbledon in 2011], but I’m really excited to play at home on Centre Court in front of a crowd. It’s always so fun for me, so I’m going to try my best, and we’ll see what happens.”
Bouchard showed off her ability to hit the ball early, pound heavy ground strokes and mix in well-timed drop shots – the things that prompted tennis legend Martina Navratilova to call her “a potential Grand Slam champion” after the Canadian upset Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon.
Bouchard’s fitness and agility served her well Tuesday, as she chased Kleybanova’s down volleys and sideline missiles. They broke each other’s serve repeatedly, but Bouchard was able to rebound and dictate points.
Bouchard had claimed her first Rogers Cup main draw victory last year in Montreal, on the heels of winning the Wimbledon junior title. She started 2013 ranked 144th in the world and has soared to No. 62.
Billed as perhaps the most promising Canadian female since Carling Bassett, the striking blonde is featured in ads across the city, on TV and on a giant banner draped on the outside of the Rexall Centre. Several fans spotting the stands Tuesday danced about with jumbo cardboard cut-outs of her head.
Bouchard’s Russian opponent was competing for the first time on the WTA Tour since overcoming stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Kleybanova, 24, was once a top-20 player and a 2009 semi-finalist at the Rogers Cup. She tried to make a return in 2012, as she recovered from the disease, but quickly realized she wasn’t ready.
Now ranked 599th in the world and making her official comeback in Toronto, Kleybanova is still working herself into tournament shape. But she showed Bouchard glimmers of her potent game, battling through long rallies, placing some expert volleys and moving her young opponent around.
“I love playing at home in Canada and really want to show how well I can play, so I was definitely a little nervous before the match,” Bouchard said. “I’m relaxed. It’s fun being home where people know you a bit more, but I know I need to stay focused on what I need to do, or I’ll lose my concentration. I put pressure on myself and I just think about my own expectations.”
Another Canadian woman advanced Tuesday, as Sharon Fichman of Toronto defeated Stéphanie Dubois of Laval, Que., 5-7, 6-2, 6-2. Fichman next takes on 15th-seeded Jelena Jankovic of Serbia.
Unseeded American Venus Williams was knocked off by 13th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belarus, 0-6, 6-4, 6-2. The 33-year-old seven-time Grand Slam champion, who has been rehabbing a back injury, was playing in her first tournament since a first-round exit from the French Open.
Williams said she hadn’t been able to practise serving much until last week, and was being conservative with it while trying to prepare for the U.S. Open. She has never won a round in three Toronto appearances.
“You have to build the confidence to just realize that you can come back and play without pain,” Williams said. “I feel like I’m in the threshold of building confidence.”
There were some surprising wins Tuesday, including unseeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia over No. 8 Angelique Kerber of Germany, and American qualifier Lauren Davis knocking off Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, a two-time Grand Slam champ and former world No. 2.
Bouchard and sixth-seeded Kvitova will meet on Centre Court Wednesday, after top-seeded U.S. star Serena Williams, the world No. 1, faces Italy’s Francesca Schiavone.