MONTREAL—Silence. Then a couple of awkward, muffled chuckles. Not a comfortable moment. If that’s what Eugenie Bouchard was trying to create out of a need to express defiance, she was successful.
“It’s nice of you to say that,” Bouchard told a news conference on Friday when a non-Canadian reporter prefaced his question by saying it was a “privilege” to be in the presence of a Grand Slam tennis finalist.
“It would be nice if our local press said that to me as well.”
It was an edgy comment borne of years of frustration on Bouchard’s part for the way in which her tennis career has been portrayed and critiqued in her home province of Quebec since the halcyon days of 2014 when she fought her way to the Wimbledon singles final.
Fair or unfair, realistic or unrealistic, that’s how she feels. So she decided to take the opportunity to return fire. As she sat on a dais in a grand ballroom in Old Montreal with her Fed Cup teammates, dressed in national colours for the first time since the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 24-year-old Bouchard certainly didn’t seem like a conquering hero returning to her hometown in triumph with rose petals being thrown at her feet.
THIS WEEKEND: Genie Bouchard returns to #FedCup play as Team Canada takes on Ukraine in Montreal.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 20, 2018
Instead, she arrived seemingly hopeful but unsure, both of herself and how she will be received. She has tumbled to 117th in the world after once being as high as fifth. She arrived with no coach, a reduced list of corporate sponsors, a new racquet since her old racquet manufacturer dropped her and the understanding playing in Montreal hasn’t always brought out the best in her.
“I’ve found it both ways,” she told Sportsnet in a one-on-one interview, Friday. “Sometimes I’ve really thrived on it. Sometimes I’ve felt this crushing pressure a little bit. I think it’s important to just, kind of just be happy to be here. I get to see a little more of family and friends, knowing they’re in the crowd supporting me, and hope the fans here really want the best for me.
“I live out of a suitcase, I’m in a different city every week for 10 months straight. It’s a pretty gruelling travel season, obviously. I always kept in touch with my family and everything, but there’s nothing like coming back to the city where you were born and raised.”
Canada plays Ukraine Saturday and Sunday in a World Group II playoff, with the winner to stay in the second ladder of the Fed Cup competition, while the loser falls to zone playdowns. Nobody wants that. With Bouchard leading the way, Canada actually made it up to the main eight-nation World Group in 2014, but fell back to the second level the next year and hasn’t been able to make it back since.
Part of the reason for that is that Bouchard hasn’t played since 2015. When she last did make herself available, she lost both her singles matches against Romania in a tie played in Montreal, a disastrous result for her and for Canada. Some felt as though she gave up in the second of those two losses.
The year before, she had arrived in Montreal on the heels of her appearance in that Wimbledon final, and was drubbed in the first round by American Shelby Rogers in a shocking defeat.
So her hometown hasn’t always been kind to her.
“She’s extremely patriotic. I know she loves representing her country,” said Team Canada captain Sylvain Bruneau. “But (Montreal) brings on a certain kind of pressure. So it’s a double-edged sword. When she comes here, there’s a lot of expectations. People seem to ask her a lot of tough questions.”
Fed Cup Feels pic.twitter.com/mgUM1U9joq
— Genie Bouchard (@geniebouchard) April 20, 2018
This weekend’s tie will be played at a makeshift, 1,800-seat indoor stadium at Jarry Park, home to the National Tennis Centre. Tickets are $25 a head. While it won’t come with the glamour and atmosphere of Grand Slam event, all eyes will clearly be on Bouchard this weekend, and not necessarily supportive ones.
“I do find they’re too hard on her,” said Bruneau. “She’s done really well, and people were really excited, and they were behind her. They loved her. And then she’s not doing as well, and people start judging and trying to find reasons.
“The talent is there, the game is there, but right now her confidence is lacking. She hasn’t won as many matches. There’s a couple of tweaks in her game she’s working on, so I think she’s going to get that going. Do I believe she can get it back? Absolutely. These matches this weekend, win or lose, it’s an opportunity for her to compete, put some things in place and try to build from there.”
So far in 2018, Bouchard has shown few signs of getting to be a top competitor on the WTA tour again. She’s 4-6, and has won one of her last four matches. After losing to Sara Errani in Charleston earlier this month, she mused that perhaps she needed to go play some lower level events where “no one cares” and play a lot of matches to get her edge back.
Her biggest victory this year was off-court when she won her legal battle with the United States Tennis Association relating to a fall in the trainers room at the 2015 U.S. Open she said left her with a concussion. She was also a featured model in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition.
Beyond that, she split with her fourth talent agency, and reportedly lost sponsors like Aviva and Colgate. She is no longer sponsored to use Babolat racquets, and will go with a Yonex model this weekend. She was once a featured athlete with Nike, but her relationship with that company is now unclear.
Clearly, she sees Fed Cup, and being with teammates like the 21-year-old Abanda, 2018 Australian Open mixed doubles champion Gabriela Dabrowski and 17-year-old Bianca Andreescu, as a respite from the grind, challenges and disappointments of the tour.
“It’s so different. Not only having the other girls to depend on as a sort of team experience, but also we have a nice staff, a medical team just to help us this week,” he said. “It’s really feeling a part of something bigger than just yourself. In a way, that takes off pressure, because it’s not just about you, the individual, but about the group as a whole.
“So it’s great. I’m always the one to do team bonding activities. We play charades at night. I’m always trying to lead the way of just bonding and having fun.”
Bouchard plays veteran Kateryna Bondarenko, ranked 56th in the world, in the second match on Saturday after Canada’s Francoise Abanda (No. 127) plays Ukraine’s No. 1 Lesia Tsurenko first.
The two countries play reverse singles on Sunday, with a doubles match to follow if needed to decide the tie. Ukraine doesn’t have Elina Svitolina, the world’s No. 4 player, or young phenom Marta Kostyuk, but is still favoured.
Bouchard, meanwhile, remains an object of considerable fascination to Canadian sports fans as her fall from the heights of tennis has continued. With WTA ranking points to defend in Madrid next month after making the quarterfinals of that event last year, she runs the risk of watching her ranking fall yet further if she can’t get her game going soon.
The last three years have seen many more defeats than victories. How does she plan to make the next three years different?
“I think surrounding yourself with the right people is the most important thing. People who have your best interests at heart, who know what they’re doing, are super-talented in their field, whether it’s coaching, or training or whatever it is,” she said. “So I’m trying to do that. And I’m trying to really be efficient with what I’m working on. You can work hard, but you have to work on the right things.
“Just do what I do, but do it better.”
This weekend represents a chance – another chance – to start over. Her critics have frequently suggested she needs to change and vary her style, be more consistent and less aggressive, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. She has gone through a number of coaches in recent years, but her basic, go-for-it style has remained the same.
“My game has always been the aggressive baseliner. That’s how I had great success in the past,” he said. “Taking (the ball) early, putting pressure on my opponents, but also with consistency and also being physical and being able to defend when I need to. You do need a little bit of an all-around game, but I want to just impose my game more on a player and put pressure on them that way.
“So there’s a lot of thinking about what I want to do on court. But the most important thing is to not think when I’m playing. Just do what I’ve done for so many years. Playing instinctively is when I do my best.”