MONTREAL—Eugenie Bouchard lunged to her left. Her attempted shot went astray. She was disappointed, but it was a worse feeling than that. She was in pain.
"I can barely breathe," she gasped.
Bouchard, once Canada’s undisputed tennis darling and still the country’s top-ranked female player, was locked in a figurative death grip with Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine. Both players were cramping and suffering as they battled on a makeshift, 1,800-seat court on Sunday afternoon at the National Development Centre on the grounds of Jarry Park.
Tsurenko looked like she couldn’t walk. She was in agony. During a break, she furiously gulped down an energy drink with electrolytes. Bouchard, meanwhile, was grimacing as her left thigh started to lock up, and another long, punishing rally had left her beyond winded. She iced her legs in between games, trying to stave off the cramps.
And fought on.
In doing so, and in ultimately defeating the very fit and higher-ranked Tsurenko in a key Fed Cup match, the 24-year-old Bouchard regained the veneer of steely toughness that once defined her game when she was a Grand Slam finalist on the women’s tour.
That was almost four years ago, and the road has been extremely bumpy since, strewn with boulders and obstacles, everything from injuries to lawsuits to controversy. She’d once been the No. 5 player in the world, but had fallen to 117th going into this weekend as she returned to play Fed Cup for the first time since 2015.
Canada very much needed her against favoured Ukraine, but it was unclear how ready she was to play at a high level. She’d only played 10 tour matches in 2018, and won only four of those. Two weeks earlier she had mused about playing smaller tournaments with smaller purses, away from the prying eyes of her critics.
Fed Cup wasn’t that, not in her hometown. She said playing at home often came with "crushing pressure." But she arrived looking for matches, searching for confidence and the key to solving her puzzling fall from the highest echelons of the sport.
It was a World Group II playoff tie, and losing it would mean Canada would fall to zone play, not the desired destination of ambitious tennis countries.
It ended up being a wild and crazy weekend of strange and unexpected twists and turns. On Saturday, for starters, Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau learned moments before the first rubber that’s his No. 2 singles player behind Bouchard, Francois Abanda, had fallen while warming up and hit her head, leaving her with a black eye and whiplash.
As if that wasn’t peculiar enough, her late minute replacement, 17-year-old Bianca Adreescu of Thornhill, Ont., went into the third set against Tsurenko and suddenly crumpled to the court in agony and in tears. She was cramping, and couldn’t continue. She was taken off the court in a wheelchair, unable to stand.
So when Bouchard went on court for her first singles match, Canada was already in a hole, down 1-0. The opponent was 31-year-old veteran Katernyna Bondarenko, no pushover. Bouchard, however, played brilliantly, destroying Bondarenko’s serving confidence with one punishing service return after another, forcing the Ukrainian to commit 13 double faults en route to a straight sets defeat.
It was as good as Bouchard had looked for months. Confident. Fast. Aggressive, but under control. The forehand was flat and smooth. The backhand looked like there was more rotation and more spin. Her hometown fans roared their approval, particularly when she hustled to a drop shot, hit a winner and then crashed into a towel box at courtside. The love affair was on again.
On Sunday, she and Tsurenko, the 41st ranked player in the world, began their match shortly after noon. They’d only played once before, three years ago in Indian Wells in a match that went three sets. Bouchard led 4-1 in the third that day, but then inexplicably lost five straight games and then match. She committed an astounding 74 unforced errors.
Tsurenko began their second meeting on Sunday as though she still felt the confidence of that victory. As the first set wore on, Bouchard’s mistakes started mounting again, and she made 21 unforced errors and lost the set, 6-4.
It wasn’t a good sign. In her previous 40 matches in which she’d lost the first set, she’d come back to win only once. But this would be a different day. She regained her footing in the second set, breaking Tsurenko in the fifth game and then winning the next three to take the set 6-2. The errors balance had changed. Tsurenko made 11 in the second set, Bouchard only 10.
The third set was like a marathon, forcing each player to the limits, with both crawling to the finish line. The fifth game of the set was a classic, with eight deuces as Bouchard fought off five break points. After 16 minutes, Tsurenko took the game to pull ahead 3-2.
But Bouchard broke right back, and the match went on, first 3-3, then 4-4, then 5-5. Tsurenko began to cramp, and had to stop serving at one point. Then Bouchard began to suffer. The match reached 6-6, setting up a tiebreaker.
Both women refused to give in, limping and grimacing as they engaged in long rallies. Finally, Tsurenko’s forehand sailed long and Bouchard had match point at 6-5 in the tiebreaker. At two hours, 40 minutes, it was one of the longest matches of her career.
She fired a hard serve. Tsurenko stabbed at it, and it sailed long. The match was over, Bouchard fell into the arms of Bruneau, and for only the second time in a year, she had back-to-back wins. Big ones. Tough ones.
"It was kind of insane," she said.
Bouchard again looked like a tough customer out there, not one ready to wilt at the first sign of adversity.
"I felt good with my tennis, good with my movement and I’m really proud of the way I fought," she said. "So it’s a good building block for me."
— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) April 22, 2018
With two singles victories, she had put Canada ahead 2-1. But the drama of the weekend wasn’t over. With both Abanda and Andreescu unable to play singles, Canada’s doubles specialist, Gabriela Dabrowski, had to take on Bondarenko. She took the first set, but was ultimately hammered into submission by the big-hitting Ukrainian, setting up the deciding doubles match.
Bondarenko and veteran Olga Savchuk were a given for Ukraine. They’d never lost a Fed Cup match as a team. But who would play with Dabrowski? She had captured two Grand Slam mixed titles over the past two seasons, but she couldn’t do this one herself.
Abanda was unavailable, as was an exhausted Bouchard. To the surprise of many, out came Andreescu, with her left calf tightly wrapped. Canada had no other option, no other healthy player. Andreescu had to play, or Canada would default the match and the tie, and fall to dreaded zone play. Again.
She and Dabrowski had only practiced as a doubles team, but had never played a match together. It didn’t seem to matter, however, against their favoured, experienced opponents. Andreescu came out firing bullets, and Dabrowski took the lead, coaching her younger partner and making big shots herself.
Surprisingly, the Canadians took the first set 6-3. Bouchard joined her teammates on the Canadian bench, munching on potato chips with a white hat emblazoned with the phrase, "Did You Know?" Also on the Canadian bench was Rebecca Marino, who had quit the sport five years ago suffering from depression, but began a comeback late last year. She had expected to be in Montreal just to watch, but instead, Bruneau gave her a team uniform and invited her to be part of the squad.
In the second set, the Ukrainians took over, grinding out a 6-4 win. It looked like they were firmly in control. Instead, the Canadians took over once more. They pulled ahead 5-2, and had two chances to serve out the match. On the first, two flubbed forehands from a tight Dabrowski kept the Ukrainian team alive.
But Canada just had too much momentum going, and broke right back, with a defiant overhead from Dabrowski ending the match. Canada had an thrilling, upset doubles win to go with Bouchard’s two singles triumphs, and it was the Ukrainians heading down to European zone play next year
"It’s horrendous, it’s terrible," said Savchuk. "It’s sad we lost and great for Canada."
What an effort, ladies. Hats off to a brilliant #FedCup weekend and showing off exactly what our country is made of! @geniebouchard @Bandreescu_ @gabydabrowski @franckie_abanda pic.twitter.com/tiiLod3lHw
— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) April 22, 2018
All in all, it was an extraordinary weekend for Canadian tennis. Bouchard was back, grittier than ever, perhaps setting the stage for the beginning of a new climb up the rankings.
"I’m proud of myself for this weekend," she said. "I had a job coming in here and I did it."
Andreescu, meanwhile, earned kudos for her guts and her play, perhaps signalling her arrival as the next elite Canadian talent.
"I can’t even describe this," she said. "I think I learned a thing or two."
Dabrowski, finally, took one for the team in singles, but came back in doubles to put Canada over the top. She has emerged as the fulcrum of Canada’s Fed Cup team.
"With all the adversity we had, against a team that on paper is ranked higher than us, it’s extremely satisfying to come out with a victory like this," said Bruneau, who said the team hotel looked like a "hospital ward" on Saturday night.
And so a weekend that looked like potential trouble for Canadian tennis ended in exhilarating triumph. It came with scrapes, bumps, bruises and pain, but it was surely worth it.