Q&A: Bouchard on big 2013, role model status

A stunning climb in the world rankings and taking a set off the best female tennis player on the planet was reward enough for Eugenie Bouchard's hard work in 2013. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Sportsnet magazine’s 2013 Awards issue hits newsstands today. And, to nobody’s surprise, 19-year old tennis star Eugenie Bouchard was named Breakout Athlete of the Year. In her first full year on the WTA tour, the native of Westmount, Que., was named the tour’s Newcomer of the Year and jumped 112 spots in the world rankings, finishing an eventful season at No. 32—the highest-ranked teenager on the planet. We recently caught up with Bouchard at the Tennis Canada’s headquarters in Toronto

Sportsnet: Tennis in Canada has taken such huge leaps forward in recent years, and in 2013 especially. To what degree has that helped or played a part in your career to this point?

Eugenie Bouchard: I started playing at five years old. I trained at a club right off Champlain Bridge [in Montreal], and I was there from basically five until 12. It’s this massive club with 20 indoor courts, the biggest of its kind in North America. As I got older I was on the court more and more, I was playing a lot and started missing school. Then when I turned 12 I moved to Florida and started training there until 15.

I came back [to Montreal] because the National Training Centre had opened, and that was really a breakthrough for Canadian tennis. When I was younger we were doing everything independently—training, travelling. It was definitely tougher. I started training there the second year it opened [in 2008]. There was a group of us, and we were able to have the same coach both in training and on the road, which was huge because it meant we could keep progressing while on the road. And financially, it allowed us to travel to the Australian Open and all of these junior tournaments that you needed to get out of Canada to play in. That was important. Just to play the Junior Slams and be there to experience that environment, to be having breakfast and two tables away it’s like, “There’s Rafa!” You got a chance to see what a tennis player’s life is like.

SN: Are there differences in the way you train in Florida versus Canada? It’s kind of like the Mecca of tennis.

EB: Yeah, in North America it is, for sure. My coach, Nick Saviano, has an academy in Plantation, and I still train there. Tennis being an outdoor sport, we’re able to train outdoors year-round. Also, just the variety of players helps as well. I think that might be a problem you run into in Canada—you hit with the same group of people. The reality is, every player is different. Players are brought into Florida from all over the world. Definitely in South America they have more clay so their players tend to have clay-court games—they stand farther back for spin and things like that. Canadians and North Americans tend to hit flatter and harder. I grew up on indoor, so I try to take the point early, play aggressive with shorter points.

SN: You seem incredibly confident and aggressive against some of the best players in the world. Where does that sense of comfort come from?

EB: It is self-confidence, I guess, but I don’t really think about it. People say, “You’re so driven and focused.” I guess it comes naturally for me. It’s always been my dream to be a professional, so I’m not surprised to be here. I know it’s what I’m meant to do and to me it’s my job. I go out on the court and it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side—you respect everyone but you don’t put them on a pedestal.

SN: Has that always been your mindset? Is that how you approached the game when you were, say, eight?

EB: Definitely not! [laughs] It’s something that comes with experience. And I’ll still hopefully be even better next year. And this year being my first year on the tour, getting to experience things like walking out to centre court at the French Open to face Maria Sharapova or centre court at Wimbledon to play Ana Ivanovic, those are moments I’ll look back on my whole life, and they help me gain that experience. Next time I can think, ‘I’ve been here, done that.’ Of course it will always be nervous and exciting, but that experience just helps me handle it better.

SN: It has to have a massive impact mentally.

EB: Yeah. I think tennis is 90 percent mental. That’s what I say.

SN: This year you became the first Canadian since Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1983 to win the WTA’s Newcomer of the Year award. Were there Canadian women players you looked up to as a kid?

EB: No. To me the country didn’t really matter, I just looked up to the greatest players in the world. I loved Anna Kournikova, but also Maria Sharapova. I remember watching her win Wimbledon when I was 10 years old. I thought she was so cool; I wanted to do what she was doing. I set my sights high and I think that’s what you have to do to be the best.

SN: Does it ever register that you’re someone whom kids growing up in the sport today look up to?

EB: I still don’t realize it. I don’t know if I am that person or not, or to what degree. I know I want to be that person one day, and if little girls want to play tennis [because of me] then that’s an honour. I think that’s the coolest thing ever.

SN: When did you know this is something you wanted to do as a career?

EB: I played my first tournament when I was eight, and when I was nine I played in a tournament in Quebec that would qualify you for this big tournament in France. It was a big national under-12 tournament. I qualified at nine, beating girls who were older and better than me. I got to go to France to play tennis—to me that was the coolest thing in the world. When I got there I decided this is what I wanted to do as a career. It’s always been in my head.

SN: And when did you think you could realistically accomplish that?

EB: There wasn’t a specific point. I was always playing, always watching, always getting better. Tennis was always my life, so after that first realization I just kept wanting to play and it made me realize I could do this.

SN: Has that passion for the game come from within you, or are there outside influences?

EB: It’s all from me. I have a twin sister, Beatrice, and when we were five my mom put us in these tennis lessons, once a week. I remember there were all these games, like jumping through hoops and that kind of stuff. They’d feed us balls only for, like, 10 minutes out of the hour. All the other kids, including my sister, loved it because it was just games, games, games. I absolutely hated it. I wanted to play tennis. So a year later, my sister retired. But my parents saw that I wanted to play, so I would start hitting more—three times a week, groups, private lessons.

SN: Is there anything you realize now that you didn’t expect when you were younger?

EB: I didn’t realize how tough it is. But at the same time I still love it. It’s even more special than I expected. Even after all those hours I could have never predicted how it would feel to walk out onto the centre court at Wimbledon. The harder it is, the better the rewards. It’s definitely worth it.

SN: You mentioned centre court at Wimbledon. Given your Junior Wimbledon title in 2012 and beating former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic this past year, that has to be like your home court now, right?

EB: Well, actually Junior Wimbledon was played on Court 1. But even that helped me for sure. But, yeah, walking out at Wimbeldon this year it was like ‘Hey, this is my home, these are my people.’ [laughs] I only found out about 20 minutes beforehand that the match was going to be on centre court. Ivanovic and I were supposed to be on Court 12. [Victoria] Azarenka was scheduled to play on centre court at 1 p.m., but she pulled out so they needed a match at that time, for TV and everything. But that was good because it didn’t give me time to be nervous.

SN: In December, you’re playing in a mixed-doubles tournament with Milos Raonic in Perth, Australia. What can you tell us about that?

EB: It’s an exhibition event, a warm-up for the Australian Open. They invite eight countries—one boy and girl from each.

SN: Have you and Milos ever played together before?

EB: No, so that’ll be interesting. And he better hold his own, because if he doesn’t there will be consequences.

Getting To Know Eugenie Bouchard

SN: You’re on a deserted island and you have an iPod that only holds three songs. Which do you choose?

EB: One has to be “Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera. That’s, like, my song. One has to be the Jonas Brothers’ “Burning Up” because I was in love with them when I was 15. Third one? God, this is so hard. I’d go crazy regardless, no matter what songs I pick. That’s just not fair. My official third one would be “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys.

SN: What do you order on your pizza?

EB: Cheese and olives. [laughs] That might be weird.

SN: What’s the best Halloween costume you’ve worn?

EB: Wow! Well, I have a list. This year I had three different costumes spread out over three days. My family and I, we take Halloween very seriously. One year we were all Shrek characters: I was Fiona, my younger brother was Puss in Boots. It was amazing. This year my friend and I had Risky Business costumes—the white shirt, the sunglasses. Then me and my sister went as twin SWAT team members; that was cool. And then on the third day me and my younger sister went as Fembots from Austin Powers. It was pretty intense. It was my first year in a long time being home for Halloween. There was like a month of preparation that went into that.

SN: If you had to pick one TV show to watch for the rest of your life, what would it be?

EB: Big Bang Theory. That’s my favourite TV show—I have T-shirts and sweatshirts. I’m a nerd. Me and [star] Jim Parsons have actually been exchanging emails, we’re like pen pals [laughs]. We met through our agents. He was supposed to come to the U.S. Open, but could only make it for the finals. Hopefully we’ll meet someday.

SN: What are three items you can’t live without?

EB: My cellphone and my Kindle, I need that… This is really hard. I thought I had this interview down and then it’s like, bam! I guess my travel neck pillow—can’t travel without that.

SN: Of any player on tour, who would you most want to switch wardrobes with?

EB: I don’t know about on tour, but of anybody at all I’d switch with Blake Lively. And I’d also switch husbands with her because she’s married to Ryan Reynolds.

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