In order to promote the coming Rogers Cup tennis tournament, our telephonic overlords arranged for three top Canadian(ish) athletes to compete against one another on Wednesday.
They pushed out Connor McDavid, Aaron Sanchez and Eugenie Bouchard. Given how things have gone for each of them in the past little while, very much in that order. Before the traditional tests of intersport skill – ball bouncing, ball throwing, ball flipping, ball shooting, something else with a ball that I've forgotten – the participants were invited to trash talk each other.
"Um. I don't know," Sanchez said miserably. But the Toronto Blue Jay is a pliant fellow so he turned to the person standing in his line of sight – Bouchard – and said, "You're not that good."
People laughed, but it wasn't a ha-ha laugh. It was more of an "Oh God, why didn't someone workshop this banter beforehand?" sort of laugh.
Bouchard smiled grimly. Having failed so consistently to quiet her doubters over the past three years, even lighthearted and ironic insults have begun to feel like what they are – the truth.
Though Bouchard is no longer a tennis player of much consequence, she remains this country's most charismatic athlete, almost despite herself.
On a performance level, McDavid is her antithesis. He's a resuscitator of iconic franchises, a peerless talent and, as of a couple of weeks ago, enormously rich. You could tell McDavid was taking Wednesday's well-insured sideshow seriously because he arrived in jean shorts.
But despite the disparity in accomplishment, Bouchard put McDavid in her profound shade. They'd dragooned in a bunch of locals and their children to take in the festivities. Few of them cared what McDavid did, but they all trilled for Genie.
In fairness, McDavid made no effort to pretend he gave a damn about any of this. Sanchez cared even less than that. Only Bouchard cared.
At one point, she began grumbling at one of the kids holding the scorecards that there was "no way" Sanchez had as many points as his placard read.
Just in case you thought she was joking, she repeated her (correct) accusation – "No. Really. There's no way that's right" – several times until somebody fixed the problem.
In the end, Bouchard did something unusual – she won. And was quite plainly delighted with herself for having done so.
(A parenthetical: Sanchez is currently on the disabled list for the fourth time this year with recurring blisters on his throwing hand. During one of the exercises – a goofy game of keepy-uppy with a tennis racquet – he announced, "My finger's hurting," and soldiered on. Good one, Rogers. Good optics.)
Afterward, Bouchard was invited to address her "victory."
"If these events exist, maybe I can do this as a job," she said.
Once again, people laughed. And once again, it was just a little too on the nose.
At this point, what makes Bouchard special is her ability to polarize people. It is not possible to know who she is and be indifferent to her.
In the general conversation, that's largely scorn. There is a vibrant industry in kicking Bouchard as she goes ass over teakettle down the world rankings. Once a fixture in the top 10, she'll soon drop into the 70s.
There's nothing special about this. We worship athletes as long as they are better than us. Once they weaken, admiration often curdles into disdain. That's the bargain they all make in order to be so well-recompensed.
With her bouts of public petulance, her ceaseless self-promotion, her decision to sue U.S. Open organizers over a slip and the shoulder-shrugging gormlessness with which she has treated the desertion of her skill, Bouchard hasn't done much to help herself.
She continues heedlessly down that road, setting up next week's tournament as a personal grudge match with Maria Sharapova.
"I just realized a lot of people were maybe a bit afraid to speak out [about the Russian's drug ban], but that's how I am," Bouchard said in a recent interview about her "cheater" outburst in April.
If the pair manages to meet at some point, it'll shift a lot of tickets, but I'm not sure how any of this is good for a player in Bouchard's awful form. Is this really the time for vendettas?
But Bouchard understands better than anyone what she has become – a human talking point rather than a tennis player. So that's the service she provides now.
If nothing else, she has proved herself remarkably resilient in recent years. It isn't self-belief – clearly, she is her own greatest doubter. And it's not mental strength – Bouchard's repeated implosions reveal her as one of the most fragile competitors on tour.
What she has is a bullheaded ability to push forward regardless of how terribly things are going. Bouchard has become elite sports' born loser. No other very famous person is better known for it.
She knows that, too. Bouchard had all sorts of nice things to say about the Rogers Cup – the cities, the fans, the kids, the organization, the food.
What was conspicuously missing? Any talk of how she might do, or how she felt, or when she's finally going to figure this thing out. Pushed gently in that direction, Bouchard bristled.
"Do you guys want to ask them questions?" she said, gesturing at McDavid and Sanchez.
(And, again, she could not help herself. When asked to answer a bland question in the other official language, she sighed irritatedly and said, "It's been a while since I spoke French." Quel charme.)
Bouchard knows from experience what's coming – another loss, another embarrassment, another tumble down the ladder of relevance. I'm sure it's gotten old and exhausting.
But you can say this much for Canada's worst high-profile athlete.
The cliché is that winners are "brave." I'd suggest there's a good deal more of that quality in someone who goes out there alone knowing they're going to have their head taken off in front of a live audience.
So while Bouchard has become a poor competitor, she may also be this country's most fearless one.