INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—For those of us who are forever scanning the tennis horizon for the game’s next big thing, the fourth-round match between Simona Halep and Genie Bouchard here this morning was a must-watch. Halep is a 22-year-old Romanian who has made a meteoric rise into the Top 10 over the last year; Bouchard is a 20-year-old Canadian who reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in January and has raised an army of stuffed-animal-toting fans around the world. The two women faced each other for the first time today; whatever the result, we knew we'd be seeing a lot more of both.
What did we learn from Halep-Bouchard Round 1? On the one hand, while there’s not much that separates them at the moment, the higher-ranked Halep has the edge; in a see-saw three-setter, she had the last word, winning 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. The Romanian is the smoother, more natural player and mover, and the more even-keel on-court presence—Halep is certainly wired differently from her most famous tennis-playing countryman, Ilie Nastase. In fact, today it looked to me, as she lost the second set and went down a break in the third, that Halep was a little too relaxed for her own good. For an hour or so, her game went passive and her shots lacked purpose.
But—and this was the most impressive part of her performance—Halep showed an instinctive ability to fix what needed to be fixed, and right the ship at the moment it absolutely needed to be righted. Down a break in the third, 3-4, she found purpose in her strokes again, hitting forehand and backhand winners back to back. At 4-4, she knocked off two more forehand winners, and then watch happily as Bouchard imploded in the final game. Unlike Bouchard, Halep wasn’t visited by a coach today; her tactical shifts seemed to come intuitively, from the mind of a player with a high tennis IQ. Halep’s stats for the match were poor—16 winners, 31 unforced errors—but she timed the winners well.
On the other hand, this match wasn’t bad news for Bouchard. For much of the last two sets, the Canadian, who at 5'10" is three inches taller than Halep, pushed forward and dictated the rallies. Interestingly, while Bouchard is known for her cool, calm, collectedness, her coach, Nick Saviano, thought she was taking the composure thing a little too far in the early going today. In his first visit with her, Saviano told Bouchard she was “too calm.” She disagreed, but he pressed the point, telling her that she needed to move her feet and attack the ball—“be like a cat,” he said. He also advised her to "finish the point at the net, you know what I mean?”
You would hope there are still some tennis players who know what Saviano means by those words. At times, Bouchard does; her swing forehand volley is usually deadly, though it was off today. At other times, though, she doesn’t; Bouchard created plenty of opportunities to close the net today, but let many of them pass. While Halep is a natural, Bouchard’s game feels more taught. In the way she sets up for a mid-court forehand, or the way she takes her racquet back with both hands for a backhand, there’s a sense that she’s doing slightly more than is absolutely necessary. Still, if Bouchard’s game has been taught, she has learned it well. For most of the last two sets, she was the better, more proactive player. Her shots may not be marked by instinct, but they are marked by conscientiousness. At the very end, though, Bouchard may have been a little too conscientious about being aggressive; she paid the price by overcooking a few key ground strokes.
It didn't take Bouchard long to recover her composure afterward. "Next time I'm going to move my feet a little more," she said, sounding unfazed by her late mistakes, "and hit a better shot.
As of today, Halep is ranked No. 7 and Bouchard No. 19. Both are intelligent, mature-for-their-age players who usually don't beat themselves. Halep is smoother; if you follow the Roger Federer theory of greatness, that means she’ll have the better career. Bouchard is bigger and, if today is any indication, stronger; if you follow the Serena Williams theory of greatness, these are the women who tend to win Grand Slams.
Round 1 between these two Nexts has been fought, and a split decision has gone to the older player. In Indian Wells, Bouchard showed that her Aussie run wasn’t a fluke, and she should probably feel OK that it was a strength—her swing volley—rather than a weakness that ultimately let her down. But Halep is the one who is moving on. She’ll play Casey Dellacqua in the quarterfinals.