Battle of the Blond Bombers

Thursday, June 05, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

PARIS—Maria Sharapova’s scream of “Come on!” was so loud, so visceral, that her entire body clenched like a giant hand when Eugenie Bouchard’s cross-court forehand landed just beyond the baseline, allowing her to consolidate a service break and plough ahead to 4-1 in the third set of this French Open semifinal.

Bouchard, the 20-year-old Canadian, had been bombarding Sharapova with everything in her bay, and yet it never seemed to be quite enough. After that errant forehand, Bouchard looked to her team in the player guest box. She made a miserable gesture of helplessness, and looked as if she were about to burst out in tears.

Sharapova can do that to an opponent; it seems that the closer one comes to beating her, the more bitter the taste when she denies the opportunity. And today Bouchard, the brightest young star in the WTA, came pretty close to that elusive breakthrough win. She won the first set and held level in the second at 5-all before the No. 7 seed passed her by in three sets, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.

“I don't feel that I played my best tennis today,” Sharapova said afterward. “But to be in the semifinals of a Grand Slam, and winning a match where I felt my opponent played extremely, well, exceptional tennis. I fought, I scrambled, and I found a way to win. I'm happy and proud about that.”

Inevitability-wise, Sharapova at the French Open isn’t quite up there with death and taxes just yet. But she’s getting darned close. This will be her third consecutive final; the last woman to do that was Justine Henin.

Funny you should ask about her. . .

In one of her recent pressers, Sharapova said of the evolution of her clay-court game, “I think the turning point a little bit for me was when I was playing Justine Henin, maybe that was the year before I lost to her in three sets. I was playing in some of the toughest conditions at the French Open, and I won the second set. I don't know. I lost that match, but I got off the court realizing that I could win this tournament. But I still had so much work to do.”

It appears that that work is now completed, and today’s match showed it. This was a much-anticipated clash, not least because Bouchard in some ways appears to be the heir apparent to Sharapova, who at 27 is the oldest of the four semifinalists. Never mind that in the pre-match photo, these two poised and statuesque blondes looked like prom queens; first and foremost, they are blond bombers disinclined to give or ask for quarter.

At 5’10”, Bouchard is four full inches shorter than Sharapova. What she gives up in height she makes up for with superior movement and a unique style. She spends a lot of time in a semi-crouch, and often hits her backhand with feet planted far apart, almost as if she’s kneeling. On the forehand side, she often pivots on her left foot as crisply as an Army recruit (think Agnieszka Radwanska) as she meets the ball, in a deep knee bend, and follows through.

Most of these earmarks help Bouchard dramatically lower her center of gravity. Combine that with perhaps her greatest asset, the ability to stay on or inside the baseline and still hit penetrating groundstrokes, and you have a tall young lady who does a lot of crouching and lunging and reaching, often with devastating results. Technically sound, she’s tall, but plays like she’s 5’2”.

“I like to step in and take the ball early,” Bouchard explained afterward. “I think that helps me control the points because I take time away from my opponent.

“But also, mentally, I feel like I compete well, and I'm always in the match no matter what. I think at this stage of the game is so mental that it's important to have that mental kind of advantage.”

Seeded just No. 18 here, Bouchard found out just how mental after she scored heavily with her flat, crisp placements in the first set. She broke Sharapova early, but the favorite broke back in the eighth game. Sharapova was unable to hold the ensuing, ninth game; as a result Bouchard served it out.

“Once I got the break up, I should have been the one that was playing more aggressive tennis and she should have been the one that was a bit more under pressure,” Sharapova said. “I happened to play a sloppy game and she served it out well. That's the end of the set right there.

“Every situation is different. You know, at the end of the day, it's not how you finish a first set. It's how you finish the last set.”

That’s easier said than done, but Sharapova was gradually dialing it in, while Bouchard seemed to get a little ragged around the edges—mentally, if not physically. Sharapova broke at first opportunity to take a 2-0 lead in the second set, but again Bouchard struck right back with a break. In the next game, Bouchard built a 40-love lead, but Sharapova belted her way back into it. Bouchard fended off two break points, but she caved in to the third with a double fault. It was the turning point; Bouchard never led again.

In fact, another game Bouchard failed to win from 40-love up led directly to her undoing in the final set as well. That was with the set on serve and Sharapova leading 2-1. For a second time, Bouchard appeared to close the door on a game, but apparently forgot to lock it. This time, the Russian punched through when Bouchard whacked a blistering Sharapova backhand out of bounds with a drive volley. Sharapova was able to consolidate that break to 4-1, and never faced another break point as she served it out.

“Those were an example of when I had a chance to have a good service hold,” Bouchard admitted. “But like I said, she fights for every point. If I don't, go for it and try to take my chances, good players like that will take them if you don't. That's part of the learning experience for me. You know, it's important for me to just go out after it.”

Bouchard, the only WTA player who’s been to two Grand Slam semifinals this year, appears to be in one of those “earn while you learn” programs. She had two losses to Sharapova without winning a set before this meeting, most recently a year ago at Roland Garros. Even her rival today has noticed she’s changing before our very eyes.

“I think she's a bit more aggressive than maybe before,” Sharapova said. “Her technique is a little different. I think she throws a lot of weight into her shots and creates a lot of power by doing that. You know, she's definitely improved since I played her here last year.”

Those are kind words from a woman Bouchard might hold up as a role model, less because of her cosmetic similarity or her Midas-like marketing power, than her work ethic and values in a highly competitive and often lonely sport of individuals.

“I'm not sure if that’s something can you work on,” Sharapova said of her toughness. “But I just don't want to give up. I work too hard to just let something go and let a match go.

“You put so much effort, you and your team, to get to this position. If some things are not working out, I don't just want to quit in the middle. Because when you lose the first set or a few games or you're down a break, that's not the end of the match. That's the type of philosophy that I play with.”

Bouchard then, is studying at the feet of the master. But she’s not cut out to be a perpetual student any more than Sharapova was, and that’s why she could make things a lot more interesting in the coming weeks and months.

Someone asked Bouchard if she thought she could duplicate what she did here and in Melbourne and at Wimbledon. “I hope so,” she replied.

Then, smiling, added: “I hope to do better than that.”  

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