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Lessons for Eugenie: Success means pressure to play well will build

Eugenie Bouchard, from Montreal, wipes her face with a towel in between games as she faces Shelby Rogers, of the United States, during first round play at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament Tuesday August 5, 2014 in Montreal.


Morning broke, as it must, and life continued – there were, after all, business commitments to honour.

Barely 14 hours after a shocking loss in her opening match at the Rogers Cup, Eugenie Bouchard bounced into her racquet sponsor's stall in the tournament retail concourse to glad-hand, sign some merchandise and flash her increasingly famous grin in photos with giddy contest winners.

She also bantered with members of her Australian-based fan club, expressing the hope they weren't too bummed out; if the Genie Army was dismayed by the result, it wasn't immediately obvious.

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"That's tennis," shrugged Ryan Gibb, a Melbourne university student and one of the group's co-founders.

"Fun will still be had," said Tom Szabo, another Genie Army member.

So at least there's that.

Bouchard didn't hold any media sessions on Wednesday, but did appear typically relaxed and voluble with the public.

Compartmentalizing defeat doesn't, on the surface at least, seem to present much of a problem.

In her post-match remarks after losing 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 to American qualifier Shelby Rogers, Bouchard said, "It's a situation where I'll learn a lot."

It's clear part of the education the 20-year-old – seeded fifth and a favourite to win her hometown tournament – received this week is on handling the burden of expectations.

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It's also easy to forget that Bouchard remains a relative newcomer to the upper reaches of world tennis, and that this kind of thing has happened to her before.

Bouchard, who is putting together arguably the greatest single season in the modern history of Canadian tennis, lost her first match at a tournament on six other occasions this season (it's happened 22 times in all since she began playing regularly in the main draws of WTA tournaments in 2011 – just never at home).

None of the preceding has prevented her from racking up $2.6-million (U.S.) in 2014 tour earnings – fifth-most on tour – and becoming the only player to reach all three Grand Slam semi-finals to date.

The camera flashes from the crowd that packed in tightly for the photo and autograph session (she also taped a short promo message in front of the audience) were further evidence of Bouchard's mounting popularity; given her success this season, the pressure to perform is only going to build.

"I've definitely noticed a change in my life a little bit since the beginning of the year, even more so since Wimbledon. It's just something I'm going to have to get used to, especially coming to Montreal is definitely a little crazier than any other tournament," Bouchard said late Tuesday evening. "I felt like I was dealing with things well. But I still have that sense of the pressure and things like that. It's a good position to be in, it's one I want to be in. But I'll just have to deal with it better."

The fact is this: A favourite, a local player to boot, was defeated soundly by an unheralded opponent (Rogers is ranked 113th) and a cause must be identified.

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It was preparation, or lack thereof. Unless it was racquet rust from a long layoff. More ominously, perhaps Bouchard merely crumbled under the strain of playing at home.

But all the bits of conjecture – what else is social media for? – tend to obscure a much simpler and obvious truth: top athletes have bad days.

Serena Williams, who has held the top spot in the world rankings for a total of 200 weeks, lost her first match in straight sets at a tournament in South Carolina earlier this year to an opponent ranked 78th in the world.

It can also happen on bigger stages: Last year, Bouchard's childhood idol, Maria Sharapova, lost to a qualifier in the second round of Wimbledon, a tournament she won in 2010.

On Wednesday, the fourth-seeded Sharapova lost the first set of her match against 27th-ranked Garbine Muguruza – like Bouchard, Sharapova hadn't played since Wimbledon.

"It's always quite different, no matter how much you train, you try to prepare for that. Once you step on the court, you feel a little bit more from the crowd, the energy. You get inspired by everything. But you're ultimately a bit rusty," she said.

A few moments earlier, the 10th seed, Dominika Cibulkova, lost in three sets to a qualifier, the 57th-ranked Heather Watson.

Fans in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada will have been surprised and disappointed by Bouchard's swift exit (there will be little financial fallout, tournament organizers already had their attendance record secured before she stepped on the court).

If Bouchard is able to metabolize the defeat and added frustration of faltering before her biggest fans and return stronger for the U.S. Open, it will be swiftly forgotten.

The first round at Flushing Meadows kicks off in 18 days. Barring catastrophe, Bouchard will be there with her game face on.

Ed Note: A previous version of this story indicated that Serena Williams had held the No. 1 world ranking for 200 consecutive weeks.

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