Eugenie Bouchard looks the part of a fashion model as she strides across the lobby of a downtown Toronto Hilton hotel, dressed impeccably in a black blouse, slim dress pants and a pair of towering nude heels.
As the 19-year-old Canadian tennis star settles into a quiet room for an interview and photo shoot, she has shed the on-court look of her breakout 2013 season on the WTA Tour, with her blond hair twisted into a braid under a visor. Her locks are curled and long, bouncing elegantly over her shoulders, set off by a dangling gold necklace and smoky dark eye makeup.
The tennis off-season has barely begun, but it’s already very different from past off-seasons for the Montreal native, who began the 2013 campaign quietly ranked No. 144 in the world and finished it at to No. 32.
Now, as the top-ranked teenager on the WTA Tour and one of its nominees for newcomer of the year, she has done fashion shoots, TV interviews and appearances at NHL and NBA games. She is recognized on the streets and gets fan mail (like one from a little girl who dressed as Bouchard for Halloween, complete with golden braid and tennis dress). Next, Bouchard will jet to Oregon to meet executives at the headquarters of Nike Inc., for whom she has modelled tennis wear alongside Maria Sharapova.
The congenial 5-foot-10 teenager enjoys the spotlight. But she’s already itching to arrive in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she’ll train in late November and December.
She will be pounding those heavy groundstrokes and hitting the gym, hungrier after tasting what it’s like to make such a dramatic leap in the rankings.
Bouchard’s current spot should earn her main-draw berths in most events, rather than having to play qualifying rounds. She could find herself seeded for the first big event of 2014, the Australian Open.
“In the past year, I improved my mental toughness on court and my footwork, so now I want to work on things that will complement that, like more power on my shots, more consistency,” Bouchard says. “I want to be able to stay with the top girls. In a battle with Serena [Williams, No. 1 in the world], you’ve got to stay with her until you get your chance to actually do something.”
Compelling results in Bouchard’s rookie season on tour prompted legendary tennis star Martina Navratilova to call the Canadian a “potential Grand Slam champion.” She made her first WTA final in Osaka, Japan, rallied to two semi-finals, upset world No. 12 Ana Ivanovic on centre court at Wimbledon, and beat top-15 players such as Sloane Stevens and Jelena Jankovic. She also took Williams to three sets in Cincinnati.
“Serena was so accurate with every shot, she could put her serve anywhere she wanted to, and I found it tough to predict where she was going,” Bouchard says. “I need to improve my anticipation and running to the ball, but that gave me so much experience, so did being on centre court with Sharapova at the French Open, with Ivanovic at Wimbledon.
“You can’t duplicate those moments; you can’t feel that in practice. Now, when I walk onto a centre court, I know I’ve been there.”
The newcomer’s award recipient will be announced in the coming weeks – Bouchard was nominated alongside American Madison Keys (No. 38) and Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig (No. 55). The only Canadian to win it is Carling Bassett, in 1983.
Bouchard earned $415,742 (U.S.) in prize money in 2013, but says her only indulgent purchase has been a Louis Vuitton handbag. “I didn’t buy a car because I don’t even have a driver’s licence yet.”
She has spent some downtime with family in Quebec and squeezed in a trip to Cancun, Mexico. She always makes sure to indulge in a Montreal poutine and a visit to Beautys, her favourite diner there, before spending the rest of her off-season in Ft. Lauderdale training at the academy of former ATP player Nick Saviano, a coach who has advised Bouchard since she was 12.
“What you learn in matches like the ones Genie played this year against top players is: ‘Does she like to be on the big stage? Does she have a passion to perform? And does she put her best foot forward when she’s up against the best?’” Saviano says by phone from Florida. “It became very clear to me that Genie really enjoys those opportunities to play on a stadium court against top players, and that’s a great attribute.”
Bouchard recalls the disappointing moments of 2013, too, like losing out in Australian Open qualifying. Winning Grand Slams has always been the ultimate goal, although she has never put a timeline on herself.
“I don’t want to stay at No. 32, I know I can still be a lot better,” she says. “Yes, I had a breakout year, but I expect a lot out of myself, so I didn’t surprise myself. I’ve been playing since I was 5, and that’s a lot of time on the court and in the gym, so I’ve always known this would happen.
“I can’t predict what will happen next, but I know for sure I’m going to try my best.”