Canadians were quickly captivated by the speedy rise of young Milos Raonic when he burst onto the ATP Tour with exciting results and a rapid rise up the world ranking. Now Canada has a 19-year-old woman who just may have the makings of a star.
Meet Eugenie Bouchard. She won Junior Wimbledon last June at age 18 and has already skyrocketed to No.58 in the world in 2013 with some compelling results during her first full season on the WTA Tour. Her game has been called aggressive, tailor-made for the WTA, and she has shown upset ability. Bouchard has razor-sharp ambition, sporty blonde good looks, and has already landed modelling work aside Maria Sharapova. Legendary tennis star Martina Navratilova has called her a "potential Grand Slam champion."
The current top-ranked Canadian is still unproved and will be unseeded this week in Toronto, and hers is that young face you might not yet recognize in the Rogers Cup ad campaigns beside superstars Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. Bouchard will meet Russian Alisa Kleybanova in the first round.
There was absolutely no mistaking Bouchard's love for tennis upon her first brush with it when she was 5, at a club on Nun's Island, near Montreal. Playing in a children's tennis group with her twin sister Beatrice, they would start each class with entertaining games to get the tots moving, using items such as balloons and hoola hoops. While the other kids delighted in the whimsy, to Bouchard, the games felt like an interminably long opening act as she itched to get at the racquets and fuzzy yellow balls.
"All of the kids, including my sister, loved the games, except me. I hated them, because I just wanted to hit more balls and actually play tennis," Bouchard recalls. "My parents were like, 'Oh, she really wants to play tennis!' So eventually, I started playing three times a week, then took private lessons and played my first tournament when I was 8. I loved it right away."
Bouchard grew up in an Anglophone family in Westmount, Que., on the same street as former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. She and her fraternal twin also had two younger siblings, sister Charlotte and brother William. They all dabbled a little in tennis as kids, but Eugenie had a unique passion for it. While she also enjoyed soccer and basketball camps in the summers, tennis quickly began to consume her time.
"Genie had this competitive streak and was never satisfied, she just always wanted to hit more balls," said her mother, Julie Bouchard. "She has always been extremely disciplined in everything she did from a really young age. She'd come home from school, and I'd still be closing the front door and she would be already in her room doing her homework."
The first indication of unique talent came at 9, when she won a qualifying event in Montreal to get into a 12-and-under tournament in France.
"I beat 12-year-olds to get there, and it really opened my eyes about what I could do," Bouchard said. "It was the first time I had ever left North America and I was doing it to go play tennis because I earned my way there. In France, I realized I want to travel the world and play tennis as a career."
Travelling internationally then, she met a player who has become one of her best friends – British player Laura Robson, who today at 19 has vaulted to No.32 in the world. Robson's mother had recommended a well-known high performance tennis academy in Ft. Lauderdale, where her daughter had trained, run by former American ATP player Nick Saviano. So when Bouchard was 12, she moved to Florida to train full time.
Saviano can recall Bouchard improving quickly, constantly requiring the coaches to move her up and find better players with whom to hit. There, she would often train alongside young girls her age also on course for the WTA Tour, such as Mallory Burdette, who is today ranked No.80 on tour or world No.15 Sloane Stephens.
"They pushed each other to get better – you don't get that many talented kids together at the same time very often," Saviano said. "Genie has always been extremely hard-working, and my perspective is that she has the athleticism and the ability to be a top 10 player, so it's up to her to continue with her immense commitment and the guidance and support she has received."
At 15, she moved back to Montreal to Tennis Canada's national training centre, which was newly opened a year earlier. Today, she trains in both Montreal and Florida, and gets coaching from Saviano, Canadian team coaches, and former world No.3 and Wimbledon finalist Nathalie Tauziat of France. Her mother continues to accompany her much of the year.
"I believed early on Genie was a gifted athlete with great hand-eye co-ordination, but you see a lot of kids come and go from academies in Florida, so we never really knew and we just tried to help her make the right decisions," said her mother. "When Genie was about 10, Maria Sharapova was winning Wimbledon at age 17, so a lot of parents then thought 'Well, my daughter will be winning Wimbledon at 17.' But the game has changed in the last five to 10 years. It's very physical and players are peaking later – in their late 20 and early 30s. So it might have taken a couple of years longer for Genie and many girls her age to break through, but I think now we see that's a good thing."
Bouchard tallied six singles titles in the ITF Challenger Circuit, the tour just below the WTA. When she became the first Canadian – junior or pro – to win a Grand Slam tournament, she attended the revered Wimbledon Ball, where she mingled with men's champion Roger Federer.
"He's my favourite player, so talking to him was a highlight of my life," Bouchard said. "He talked to me and [Canadian boys Wimbledon champion] Filip Peliwo. He asked me what my pro ranking was, which at that time was around 300, and he told me that's just where he was ranked when he won Junior Wimbledon."
Victories are much tougher to come by on the WTA Tour, yet Bouchard is finding her way. Highlights of her first year on Tour have included runs to the quarter-finals at Charleston and the semi-finals at Strasbourg, as well as an upset of world No.12 Ana Ivanovic on centre court at Wimbledon.
"She has a technically sound game and she constructs points well," Navratilova said to Wimbledon.com after the upset. "If she continues like this she will be top 20 at least by the end of the year. I don't want to say a star is born but we have seen a potential Grand Slam champion here."
She began 2013 ranked 144th, and has climbed 86 spots. This year, Nike enlisted the 5-foot-10 rising star to model in ads with Sharapova.
"Her game is very well-designed to succeed at the professional level," said Canadian women's national team coach Sylvain Bruneau. "She hits the ball extremely early and very heavy, has developed a very powerful serve, and hits the ball very deep and penetrating. When you look at players like Sharapova, Azarenka and Williams, that's what they do. She's not doing it as well as they are yet, but she's doing all the same things that the top players are doing."
"When I was little, I would go watch the pros play tennis when they came to Montreal, and watching the women up close always left an impression on me," Bouchard said. "It would be great to be the idol of kids. I don't get a home crowd very often, so I'm excited to see how fun that will be. I want to show Canadian fans how I can play."