Many 20-year-old tennis players appearing in just a fifth Grand Slam might be satisfied with an historic run to the French Open semi-finals, content in pushing Maria Sharapova to a three-set thriller on such a big stage.
Not Genie Bouchard.
Her gripping matchup with Sharapova Thursday at Roland Garros had Canadians excitedly abandoning their work cubicles for televisions and buzzing on social media, while tennis experts touted her blossoming talent and grit. But the 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to a superstar she had admired as a youngster left Bouchard walking off the court quietly, stone-faced. No polite smile or wave.
“I’m always disappointed with a loss,” Bouchard told the press in Paris. “I expect a lot from myself. You know, I felt like I was close today and just came up a bit short. That happens sometimes. I feel like I played a lot of good matches the past two weeks, three weeks even, and so it’s sad to see it come to an end.”
Bouchard had lost her first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open in January to eventual champion Li Na. She continued to skyrocket this week by becoming the first Canadian singles player to advance to the final four at Roland Garros. The World No. 16 won the first set off No. 8 Sharapova, and then put intense pressure on the 27-year-old winner of four Grand Slams by routinely moving her back and forth across the clay, jumping on her serves and capitalizing on her mistakes. They had met twice before, but this was the first set the Canadian had ever taken off Sharapova.
The Russian won the second set, which was shaky for both players and wound on for an hour with various momentum shifts. Twice on the day, Sharapova dragged the Canadian back from a 40-0 lead in a game and broke her serve. The veteran’s ball-striking improved dramatically in the third set along with her mental strength and stamina. The youngster survived several match points in the dying moments, but Sharapova prevailed in 2 1/2 hours to advance to her ninth Grand Slam final and pursue her second French Open title.
“It gets to be very mental at some point, and she’s very mentally strong, but Sharapova has been in these situations many more times than Eugenie, and it showed a bit today,” said Sylvain Bruneau, Tennis Canada’s women’s national team coach and part of Bouchard’s team in Paris. “Sharapova was really able to raise her level on some key points and Eugenie did not do that as well, and I think that was the difference, and probably if she wants to win these, that’s something she needs to do. I’m very confident she will.”
Bouchard leaves Paris with €825,000 ($1.2-million) in prize money and is expect to make another jump in the rankings, likely to No. 13. To compare, Bouchard was ranked No. 77 during last year’s French Open when Sharapova dusted her in a 57-minute two-set second-round rout.
A throng of about 40 people – several of whom have known Bouchard since she started playing competitively – gathered to watch the match in an airy courtside lounge at the national training centre at Uniprix Stadium in Montreal. They were euphoric after Bouchard won the first set, doubly so when she roared back to tie the second and seemingly gave herself a chance to advance to her first Grand Slam final.
The attendees – many of them Tennis Canada employees, coaches and junior players – lived and died with every point, groaning when Bouchard ultimately dropped the second set. When the end came there were the usual grumbles, and then a burst of applause.
“I think she had us believing in that second set, and even in the third … she didn’t beat herself, Sharapova was forced to make some incredible shots,” said Tennis Canada vice-president Eugène Lapierre, also the tournament director for the Montreal portion of the Rogers Cup this coming August.
The tournament will benefit from a hometown headline act in Bouchard, although the event generally draws well with or without one. Bouchard, though, made some comments in the European media recently that offended some French-Canadians, when she said, “I don’t speak with a Quebecois accent, at least that is good.” Her poise on court makes it easy to forget she’s still 20 and prone to some public missteps.
By the time Bouchard plays in Montreal, she will likely be in the top 10.
“She simply does not stop progressing,” said Lapierre. “The first time she played Sharapova, which was last year, she lost badly. The second time she took a few games, this time she won a set and could well have won the match. I think Maria will be thankful that she won [Thursday] … matches like these are important in that they show Eugenie what she needs to do to reach that next level: work on her second serve, maybe on her movement a little bit.”
Bouchard herself was already thinking ahead.
“It just motivates me … I was still so close,” Bouchard said. “That just gives me extra motivation to work hard in practice and get ready for the next one and have that belief that I can do it.”
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