WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—Does it seem like it’s a little too soon for Eugenie Bouchard? I’m ready, like every other tennis fan, for a new face, a new game, a new personality, a new star; and Bouchard is a winner on all of those fronts. But are we ready for her to win everything, right now? Where was the struggle and the angst and the uncertainty on her way to the top? Where were the doubts that the rest of us can relate to? She’s made reaching a Wimbledon final look like acing a Chem final: Study hard, show up on time, keep your notes organized, say the right things in class, and you'll be rewarded in due time.
That was my first thought after the 20-year-old’s no-fuss, almost-no-muss 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over No. 3 seed Simona Halep here on Thursday. My second thought, with the benefit of a little historical perspective, was that it always seems like it’s too soon when a new champion walks in from out of nowhere and onto the Grand Slam stage. At the time, it didn’t seem possible to me that Monica Seles could beat Steffi Graf at the French Open when she was 16. It didn’t seem possible that Boris Becker could win Wimbledon, or Serena Williams could win the U.S. Open, at 17. Great players are always a little bit impossible.
The thing about Bouchard is that her success doesn’t seem to have come from a precociously magical talent for hitting a tennis ball, the way it did for the three players I mentioned above. Her 2014 progression looks like the culmination of a six-month, three-step master plan: Start outside the Top 30, reach two Slam semifinals, then go for broke at Wimbledon. After her win today, Bouchard was told that she had looked “subdued in victory”—there was no roll in the grass or tears to hold back from her (leave that for the men). She was asked if any more turbulent emotions had been swirling beneath. The answer, according to Bouchard, was: Nope.
“It’s not like a surprise to me,” Bouchard said in her straightforwardly resolute manner. “I expect good results like this. So for me, I was like, ‘OK, good. It’s a step in the right direction. I get to play in the final.’ You know, I still have another match, so it’s not a full celebration yet.”
There was one moment today, I thought, where Bouchard did express what makes her such an effective competitor—which is the same, in her case, as saying that she expressed her true self. She was up 5-4 in the first set, with Halep serving at 40-0. The Romanian lost two straight points, the second one with a double fault, to make it 40-30. Halep had turned her ankle at 2-2, and now seemed hesitant and negative; she said later that she “couldn’t push anymore in my leg. My first serve was really bad after that.” Here was a chance for Bouchard to steal a set from her doubtful opponent. On the next point, Halep kicked in a slow second serve, Bouchard moved forward for a forehand...and clanked it long.
She stared at the spot where the ball had landed for a split, disbelieving second. Then she turned her head just as quickly away to start her next service game. You could see, once she had made that turn, that the missed opportunity had been forgotten. At 5-5, Bouchard came back, as she did on a number of occasions, from 0-30 down to hold. And in the crucial first-set tiebreaker, she came back from 2-4 to win it 7-5. Halep didn’t play badly for most of the match, but Bouchard always played to win. When there was a key point to be had, it was invariably hers.
“I think what I do well,” Bouchard said, “is I really don’t let it get to me or affect me. You know what? There are challenges everywhere in life. I love being challenged and I love working hard to try to overcome something.”
Halep, on the other hand, admitted that the events of the day were too much for her to overcome. There was the ankle roll; there was the sick fan who forced play to be stopped when she was up 3-2 in the tiebreaker; there was what Halep called Bouchard’s “lucky ball,” a net-cord forehand winner at 4-2 in the breaker; and there was the fact that she was playing for the third time this week.
“It’s hard, yeah, to stay focused, to play every point,” Halep said, “because you are a little bit afraid after injury....I think I played till the end, but in the second set I lost my energy and I couldn’t believe anymore that I can finish the match in the right way for me.”
Bouchard’s run here has been blessed. The Canadian press had talked about a “murderer’s row” of women she would have to go through to win it. But her presumed fourth-round opponent, Serena Williams, was knocked out in the third round; and her presumed quarterfinal opponent, Maria Sharapova, was knocked out in the round of 16. Both times, Bouchard played their conquerors, Alizé Cornet and Angelique Kerber, the very next day, when they were ripe for a letdown. And in the semis, Halep turned her ankle in the fourth game.
Halep and Bouchard will likely play on stages like this many more times. Halep is the more natural player, but today Bouchard was the better competitor—as well as the bigger one. As Halep said afterward, Bouchard is 5’10”, but she makes herself look even more imposing from across the net.
“Her position on the court makes you to see her more,” Halep said. “Her style is to stay close to the baseline. At the return, she stays very in the court.”
Looking bigger than she is; winning faster than she should be. Bouchard is making the impossible look like just another test to ace.
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