Charleston: Bouchard d. V. Williams

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Eugenie Bouchard’s education in tennis is growing by leaps and bounds. Today at the Family Circle Cup, she played Venus Williams and survived a two-hour-and-15-minute, knock-down, drag-out match, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-4.

If you watched this one, you might still be wondering how Bouchard pulled it off. The short answer: By rallying her game when Williams seemed to be utterly in control and playing bold, aggressive, error-free tennis when it most mattered. It was somewhat unexpected, given that from the start of the second set until midway through the third, Williams was in command, hitting crisp shots backed with athleticism that enabled her to stay in rallies, even when Bouchard was trying to get up off the mat.

The bottom line about Bouchard’s success is that it’s made of the stuff you just can’t teach.

Williams is 33 years old, and at No. 11 she was seeded five notches below Bouchard. But this still seemed like an upset when you tally up all the circumstantial details, starting with the experience gap.

The first set was a topsy-turvy affair, highlighting Bouchard’s precociously craft play and Williams’ toughness. Bouchard recorded the first break in the third game, but Williams began challenging the young Canadian’s serve in the subsequent games.

By the eighth game, Bouchard had to fend off a break point with a cross-court, third-ball forehand that Venus barely got her racquet on. Bouchard managed to hold for 5-3, but Williams was getting her big, booming groundstrokes dialed in, and her legs kept her in the rallies.

Bouchard served for the set twice, at 5-4 and again at 6-5, but her failure to close the deal could not be laid entirely at the feet of youth. Williams was forcing the action and her groundstrokes were falling deeper and deeper in Bouchard’s court. But the 20-year-old hung in there, even as Williams twice denied her the set and then earned a 2-1, mini-break lead in the tiebreaker.

Bouchard quickly got the mini-break back thanks to a Williams double-fault, but she immediately made a forehand error to surrender the advantage once again. Williams returned that one, too, when she made a terrible forehand volley error at 5-3, but she then blasted a backhand service return that Bouchard could only drive into the net in reply. Williams was up 6-4 and the set appeared lost for Bouchard.

But Williams was unable to break Bouchard’s resolve. An inside-in forehand winner and a Williams error ending yet another high-quality rally left it at 6-all, with Williams to serve her second point. She made a backhand approach error, and Bouchard took full advantage of the set point with a cross-court backhand winner.

The first set lasted an hour, but Williams was just warming up, as her record of pushing matches to the limit this year suggests. Instead of struggling to get back into it, Williams intensified the pressure when the new set got underway. By the time she broke Bouchard for a second time to lead 2-5, the youngster looked beaten down and uncertain. At 34 minutes, the second set was barely half the length of the first.

Williams continued to roll in the third. Bouchard, looking dispirited and out of sorts, played terribly to give Williams a break for 2-1. But just when it seemed that Bouchard was too distracted to put up any more resistance, her game sparked to life. It was at that point that Williams’ forehand began to misfire.

With Williams serving at 30-all in the fourth game, and right after an ace, Bouchard smacked a cross-court backhand return off a second serve and Williams yanked her cross-court forehand out. She followed it up with a forehand inside-out error that gave the break back and left the set tied at 2-all.

Over the next few games, Bouchard slowly got back into her earlier groove, and she produced a strong hold to take a 5-4 advantage. Serving to stay in it, Williams opened with an ace and built a 40-30 lead when a backhand let-cord by Bouchard dribbled back on her own side of the net. But in the ensuing rally, Williams hit a wild forehand to take the score to deuce, and quickly netted another forehand off Bouchard’s next return to set up match point. Bouchard won it when she raced forward to field a dying volley and pushed the backhand return past Williams.

Bouchard has been showered with stuffed animals lately (she is, after all, barely out of her teens), and she asked the fans to keep them coming. I guess they look nice next to the big scalps hanging in her room at home.

Stat of the Match: Bouchard made 31 unforced errors, while Williams made a whopping 39.

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