After losing in her first senior Grand Slam appearance to a former Wimbledon finalist, Françoise Abanda seemed mildly amused. Alone among the four Canadians who lost here on the first day, she was entirely unbothered.
“Now I know what the level is,” Abanda shrugged. “I know what I have to do.”
By next year, the 17-year-old Quebecker will be our great hope and the likely darling of Canadian tennis.
That’s the thing about darlings – they remain so only as long as they’re coming up.
The key to Abanda’s current appeal is two-fold – she has potential, and we know nothing about her. We’re free to fill in the blank space that is the public perception of her character. She’s unspoiled in our minds by the encumbrance of real, observed emotions. Rule one of women’s tennis: There are no world-weary ingénues.
That’s where the current It Girl, 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard, is headed, and quickly.
A year ago, Bouchard was Françoise Abanda – someone you’d heard of, but knew nothing about. Since then, she’s climbed the mountain, enjoyed the view for 48 hours, and is temporarily picking up speed as she heads down the other side.
Bouchard arrives in New York having won only one match since the Wimbledon semi-final July 3. She’ll face world No. 117 Olga Govortsova on Tuesday afternoon.
According to her coach, Nick Saviano, Bouchard is fully healthy for the first time since Wimbledon. It’s not an excuse, he said. Well, it is. But it’s a good one.
Ahead of what might be the first match she’s ever had to win, rather than hoped to, Bouchard wasn’t speaking to media.
“She’s got to really, really, really bear down. She’s got to really, really focus,” Saviano said, by way of apology. That’s a lot of reallys.
A few minutes later, she went through a desultory practice session. She spent much of it berating herself for misses. Bouchard’s body language is rarely celebratory. This was occasionally funereal. You could feel the pressure coming off her like heat.
For all that’s being made of Bouchard’s sudden rise, it’s less remarkable than her quickening fall.
She was getting very close to the sun as she arrived in London. Amongst many other new foreign fans, the Daily Mail greeted her with a fawning profile and lavish photo spread.
Two weeks later, she had fully arrived. After three consecutive Grand Slam semis, Bouchard was moving out of the safe space reserved for emerging talents from tennis backwaters and into the fraught territory of big names and fresh targets.
Typically, the Daily Mail was the first to turn on her. They published a lacerating front-page splash on the morning of the final. In the curiously sourced hit piece about Bouchard’s falling out with fellow pro and former friend Laura Robson, Bouchard was portrayed as grasping and shallow. Hours later, she imploded on the court.
She arrived home and began coming apart. With the dam of positivity now broken, people were happy to jump on her with both feet. Though it had been a lengthy legal process, her father’s failed attempt to write off money invested in her training as a tax deduction was suddenly big news.
When she broke down at the Rogers Cup, people pored over video of her time out pleading with Saviano – “I want to leave the court” – like the Zapruder film. He walked back into the stands at one point and muttered, “She’s not listening.” This small, ultimately meaningless exchange wasn’t greeted with sympathy. This is where the tide began to turn against Bouchard in her home country.
Saviano now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend Bouchard the person, rather than Bouchard the player.
“She’s very professional,” he said Monday, apparently frustrated by the question. “She’s very courteous and gracious to everybody out here. She’s very down to earth, and she’s very charming to people.”
The bind here is that, as soon as you start saying things like that, you validate anyone suggesting the opposite might be true.
Also, try to imagine someone saying this about a rising male star. Say, the brooding Grigor Dimitrov: “He’s very charming to people.” It’d play like a laugh line. But this is the sort of thing we want to hear about female players.
Real or imagined, the character flaws of male players lend them the romanticism of the outsider. They’re allowed to be self-centred and brutal. Before his late-career turn toward the light, that was the entirety of Andre Agassi’s appeal. There are good guys and bad guys, and sports needs both varieties of cliché. Emphasis on “guys.”
Women are instead cast in Disney roles. They’re expected to be innocently cheeky and demure and friendly with everyone. As they are coming up, they are presumed to have one flat character aspect – niceness. If they arrive at the top and can’t manage to maintain that illusion under sudden scrutiny – and honestly, who can? – they’re flayed.
Every single female star has fallen victim to this double standard at some point in her career. The only way women can immunize themselves from the “character” trap is by having none.
The only way to get through it is by winning. We’ll celebrate any sort of winner. If you can’t win – reluctant pin-up Anna Kournikova leaps to mind – you’re harried until you give in and leave the game.
There’s still plenty of room for quirky, grating, half-talented men. There’s none for a middling female player with an abrasive personality.
This isn’t to say Bouchard is that. Every one of us has fallen out with someone. Every one of us has bad days and temper tantrums. They just don’t write about them in the papers.
She’s now trapped in that special hell reserved for women who do well in sports – attracting just enough attention to spoil the image we imposed on her.
There’s only one way out. Keep winning.