The new face of tennis?

After years grinding on the junior circuit, 20-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard is poised to be one of the sport’s next big stars. Now she just needs that breakthrough win

The new face of tennis?

The sun was just starting to fade on the evening of August 5 when Eugenie Bouchard, the eighth-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, walked onto centre court at the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal.

Immediately, the audience rose to its feet and roared. Bouchard, who grew up five miles from the stadium, approached her chair, eyes trained on the ground. As she put down her tennis bag and took out her racket, the crowd continued clapping, cheering and whistling. She arranged a towel across the seat of her chair and another across its back, and still the ovation went on. Finally, when it became clear that Bouchard did not intend to acknowledge the frenzy with so much as a wave, the crowd sat, reducing its din to the usual pre-match hum.

Bouchard’s composure and focus, for which commentators in countless languages have praised her, was partly what drew 11,000 fans to fill the stands for a second-round match. She would smile, maybe, when she won.

This year Bouchard — who faces the Czech Republic’s Barbora Zahlavova Strycova tonight in the US Open third round — has started to look like someone who could win at the highest levels of tennis. As some of the top women’s players — Serena Williams, Li Na — reach into their 30s, occasionally showing their age with injuries or spotty play, fans have been eager to identify the next generation of stars. Bouchard is near the top of the list.

Martina Navratilova says she counts Bouchard as “one of only a handful of players who had the potential to make it to No. 1”. Chris Evert calls herself a “Genie believer” and described her as “tough as nails”. Bouchard showed that toughness in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, where she lost the first set to Ana Ivanovic before resolutely pressing her way back to win the match. (She lost to Li Na in the semi-finals). She showed it again a few months later at the French Open, where she also made it to the semi-finals. Most recently, at Wimbledon, she blazed her way to the final without losing a set. In the championship match, she lost in a rout, 6-3, 6-0, to Petra Kvitova, but even then commentators praised her maturity: She did not seem overly impressed that she had made it so far and showed only a determination to do better. “I am very motivated to win a Grand Slam,” she told reporters. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine. I feel like I’ve taken steps in the right direction.”

Bouchard’s match at the Rogers Cup, one of five North American tournaments leading up to the US Open, was her first since Wimbledon. In Montreal, the hometown crowd welcomed her with a mix of national pride and romantic infatuation. Bouchard was dressed in pink, from her sneakers to her visor; her US opponent, Shelby Rogers, who was ranked 113th, was dressed in black, as if she embraced her role as antihero. Having won the coin toss, Bouchard approached the baseline to serve. The hum dwindled to a hush.

Bouchard is a player on the brink. For months, she has been celebrated as someone expected to win Grand Slam events, but she has yet to deliver on that promise. She is still little known outside tennis circles, except in Canada, where she is the multi-million dollar face of Coca-Cola and recognised wherever she goes. Elle Quebec put Bouchard on the cover of its August issue, but the magazine also accidentally ran two small photos of Maria Sharapova, another tall blonde, to accompany the article, which “kind of killed the buzz” for Bouchard. Far from flattered, she chafes under the suggestion she could be the next Sharapova. “I don’t want to be the next someone else,” she has said. “I want to be the first of me.”

When people compare Bouchard with Sharapova, usually they are talking about her extraordinary marketing potential and not her strokes: 5-foot-10, straight of nose and teeth, Bouchard has earned the nickname #selfiequeen on Twitter for the glamour shots she posts. But she is also a player whose game is strong enough to justify a certain amount of attention from fans, advertisers and even the Women’s Tennis Association, which has promoted her heavily.

Now that women’s tennis has become a game of power, players are not expected to peak until their mid-20s; Bouchard, who turned 20 in February, could be acclaimed for her potential alone for years to come.

Bouchard does not have the killer forehand of a Steffi Graf or the serve of a Serena Williams; her prized weapon, the former tennis star turned broadcaster Pam Shriver told me, is her steadiness, a valuable asset in a sport so susceptible to psychological self-sabotage. “There’s nothing in her game that would frighten me — except when you combine all her skills with her mental toughness, her appearance on the court to be in control of her emotions,” Shriver said. Nick Saviano, Bouchard’s coach, emphasises, in all things, evenness: You can’t take the wins too big, you can’t take the losses too big. Consistency is all.

After Wimbledon, Bouchard and her mother, Julie Leclair, retreated to Montreal, where they share a condominium. (Bouchard’s parents are divorced.) Months of competing at the top levels had tapped Bouchard, who proudly revealed her Cork links during Wimbledon, out physically and mentally. With Saviano’s blessing, she took a break from tennis and did a lot of nothing. She napped before lunch and then napped again after lunch, maybe squeezing in a snooze over a massage. After about two weeks, she went shopping with some friends and stopped at a Lululemon, where a television was showing a small women’s tournament. She sat transfixed. “It was just some local tournament,” Bouchard told me. “But I was fascinated. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God — I really miss tennis!’”

From the moment Bouchard arrived on Centre Court in Montreal for her match with Rogers, the event took on an eerie, dreamlike quality. Earlier that day, the stadium was hit with a power outage, and during the first set there were no lights, no scoreboard and no microphone for the umpire. By 7pm, the natural light had dimmed just enough to worry Bouchard; she likes to return the ball early, as it is still rising, and she was not sure she could make those quick adjustments with her vision even slightly impaired.

She served the ball, and after a solid rally, she hit what appeared to be a winner — before it sailed long. She won a point, then lost the next and the next. Suddenly Rogers was a point away from breaking Bouchard’s serve. Bouchard adjusted her visor; she often gives it a little shake as if to set something right in her head. Bouchard served to Rogers’ backhand but then hit her next shot wide. Bouchard looked over to Saviano, who was sitting in a box on the court. It was only the first game, but she looked rattled.

The next game was no better: She hit two into the net, another slammed into the back wall. Within moments, it was 40-0. Then the game was over, and she was down 2-0. Then 3-0. Bouchard started hitting balls almost recklessly, not even going for returns coming down the line. “What a meltdown — what’s going on?” a man in the fifth row asked the man sitting next to him. “Too much pressure,” his friend answered.

In non-Grand Slam events, women are allowed a courtside consult in each set with their coach. With the score 5-0 at the changeover, Bouchard called Saviano over. “I want to leave the court,” she told him, then covered her face with a towel.

Saviano, mic’ed for TennisTV, as is customary for coaches during the consult, spoke to Bouchard in the careful, gentle tones of a well-trained childcare professional. “I understand,” he said. “I understand — a little bit overwhelmed for a second — that’s totally fine.”

Saviano reminded her that a set was not a match. He tried to help her concentrate: “Really focus on making every ball. Do you understand what I mean? Right here, right now, this game, this point.” Saviano trotted back to his box. “She’s not listening,” he said, a few minutes later. “This match is going to go by quickly.” In short order, Bouchard lost the first set, 6-0.

Athletic but not a prodigy, Bouchard had the advantage of her own in-born determination. From an early age, she seemed intent on setting and reaching goals. She had to get 100 on every math test she took, and during the summer between third and fourth grades, she systematically plowed through every Nancy Drew book she could get her hands on, not stopping until she finished 50.

She also had the advantage of her parents, who were willing to meet her determination with their own efforts and investments. They pulled her out of school at 1.30pm for private lessons and planned vacations around tournaments. When Bouchard was 12, Leclair moved to Florida so her daughter could train full-time with Saviano, who runs a training academy in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale. Bouchard’s father mostly stayed in Montreal to work, and over the years, her fraternal twin sister, Beatrice, and two younger siblings, William and Charlotte, travelled back and forth. At Saviano’s academy, Bouchard did not immediately stand out among players like Sloane Stephens, whom many consider, after Serena Williams, the player on the WTA with the most pure athletic talent and speed, and Laura Robson, a British player with a devastating forehand. “I knew Sloane could be great right away; same with Laura,” Saviano recalled. But Bouchard just kept working. “And kept winning,” Saviano said. “That was how I knew.”

The second set at the Rogers Cup match did not start any more promisingly for Bouchard than the first.

In the opening game, Bouchard, who was serving, flubbed a ball into the net to put her down 15-40. But on the next point, Bouchard came back at Rogers from inside the baseline, whipping a forehand out of Rogers’ reach. It seemed to spook Rogers, as if she sensed something menacing had been let loose: 30-40. Rogers returned Bouchard’s next serve with a bewildered backhand, sending the ball far out. Bouchard went on to win the game and the next, breaking Rogers’ serve. Soon, she was up 4-1. As she collected points and games, the crowd’s concern gave way to relief, then festivities. A wave went around the stands. She took the second set 6-2. This was the Bouchard they come to see.

In the third set, Bouchard started losing her serve, losing her composure. She had surely played sloppy matches before, but she had rarely shown so much emotion, and it was surprising, almost touching, to see it on display for a hometown audience. Watching her mental dissolution — her muttering to herself madly, her hanging her head low — was like watching a child who had kept it together for strangers all day melt down in front of the parent who loves her unconditionally.

Bouchard could not string together enough points to win even one game in the third set. The umpire announced that it was over: Jeu, manche, et match, Rogers. Bouchard, her shoulders hunched forward, her hand covering whatever part of her face the visor did not, slowly walked off court.

Bouchard’s contract with her manager at Lagardère Unlimited is up in October, and other agents have made no secret of their interest in poaching her. “We would love to represent Eugenie Bouchard,” Fernando Soler, head of IMG tennis, said at Wimbledon. “We’ve been in touch with her.” On a day when Bouchard was practising at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, I looked past the court, past a garbage can, toward the tennis centre’s office building. There, popping out from behind a bush, was the head of Max Eisenbud, Maria Sharapova’s agent. He was discreetly watching Genie play. (He says he was there only to have lunch with Saviano, an old friend.) The afternoon before, as Bouchard worked out in the gym, another man, tall and bearish with a soft voice, ambled over to Leclair — what an incredible coincidence to run into her there! He had texted her twice that day already, having tracked down her number. He wanted to talk to her about her daughter. His agency had recently helped negotiate a near $300m deal for the baseball player Miguel Cabrera.

As Bouchard starts inching her way into adulthood, she might be expected to start making her own decisions, but the stakes are high, the money big. Facing responsibilities beyond her years, she has resisted some of the usual mileposts along the way. She has refused to learn to drive — “It’s too scary” — which means that her mother still must accompany her almost everywhere. For someone so sophisticated in so many regards, she has a most unsophisticated crush on Justin Bieber, which she admitted at the Australian Open, to loud booing from the Genie Army. For a snack, she often eats baby food, small jars of pears and even creamy rice cereals. She started as an infant, but never stopped. Elle Quebec asked her to name her biggest fear. “Getting older,” she said. “I swear, I’m really afraid of it.”

At times, it is evident how hard Bouchard works to transmute a young woman’s vulnerability into a polished, porcelain-hard surface. For close to a decade, she counted Laura Robson, the British tennis player who outranked her on the tour, as her best friend. At Wimbledon, she was asked if the two were still close. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, unusually undiplomatic. “I’m sure you guys can figure out that one.” In interviews, she often says that the tour is not the place for her to have friends, as if it was a strategic choice. But when I asked her about it, it was clear that, from her point of view at least, the friendship had been pulled out from under her. There was no big blowout, she said. “We were best friends for 10 years, so I don’t think it would have been any one thing.” The friendship dissolved slowly, she said, as she rose in the rankings and finally surpassed Robson, who suffered from repeated injuries. “A true friend would be happy for a true friend’s success,” Bouchard said. “But that’s not what happened.” Her friend just became “distant.”

To hear Bouchard tell it, she bears readily the personal costs of competing. “To do something crazy and to be amazing, to achieve something crazy, you have to do something crazy,” she said. “You have to sacrifice and do something that’s not normal, because you want to become not normal. To become a great champion, you can’t do what the average Joe does. Because you’re not going to get there.”

The day after her match, Bouchard showed up at the Rogers Cup for an appearance for Babolat, a tennis company she represents. After a tough loss, Andre Agassi was known to pay a steep fine rather than show up for a news conference. But here was Bouchard, tired but calm, smiling and on time. She was either showing a champion’s maturity or took coaching well from her mother or both: A commitment’s a commitment, Leclair sometimes says. Her sister Beatrice, a university student, took time off from a summer job at a video-game design firm to show some support, as did, of course, Leclair.

After the Babolat event, a full-time bodyguard Bouchard hired just a few weeks earlier escorted her to a private conference room, where we talked for a few moments about the previous day’s match. “We knew going in it would be difficult,” she said. The pressure, the hometown attention — she was trying not to be too hard on herself. She was not competing again until the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, a full week away (she lost in the second round). And she seemed, quite possibly, relieved: The worst had happened, and she was still standing. After the match, Saviano had pointed out some strengths — that she stayed in the match, that she proved she could come back, at least for a while, from that unusually brutal first set. “I think it’s good it happened here, that I got it out of my system before the US Open,” she said.

Afterwards, she and her sister spoke briefly in the hallway, ribbing each other about a delicate Tiffany necklace Genie wore in the match, which Beatrice “borrowed” for close to a year. Genie won the necklace in 2012 at a best-dressed contest for the players at a pre-tournament party in Osaka. She had been inclined to skip the party, until a friend told her there was a competition involved. “I was like: ‘Wait, there’s a competition? I’m in!’” Bouchard said.

“You have to go collect your prize money,” Leclair finally directed her daughter, pointing down the hall. Beatrice said she had to get back to her summer job. “I’m so going to get fired; I’m taking the longest lunch ever,” she said, before walking in the opposite direction. Leclair looked momentarily torn about which way to go. “Mom, come with meeeeee!” Beatrice said, as she headed out, but Leclair was following Genie. They had a lot of work to do with the US Open just weeks away. “Okay, Mom,” Beatrice called out, as she left. “Bye! Bye!” Already, Leclair and Bouchard were out of sight, back to business, steeling themselves for the next day, the next tournament, the next big match.

- (copyright The New York Times Magazine 2014).

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