Eugenie & Jelena: Struggling Bouchard can find solace in Jankovic's story

by: Nina Pantic | June 24, 2015

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The "it girl" of the WTA Tour can find some comfort in Jankovic's losing-streak-turned-success story. (AP Photo)

Remember when, just last year, Eugenie Bouchard was being touted as the new “it girl” in tennis? Just five months ago, we made the then-20-year-old the focus of our 2015 season preview. It was not without good reason: The Canadian, who began 2014 ranked No. 32, had climbed to No. 5 and reached the Australian and French Open semifinals and Wimbledon final along the way.

How things have changed. These days, Bouchard is more likely to be bombarded with doubters and critics than adoring fans and stuffed animals. Her first-round win yesterday in Eastbourne over Alison Riske was just her second victory in her last 12 matches. It was a temporary salve: Earlier today, she retired with an abdominal injury while trailing Belinda Bencic 6-4, 3-0. Each time Bouchard has appeared to bottom out this year, she’s dug herself a deeper hole as she slipped outside the Top 10.

Still, Bouchard’s extended slump isn’t all that unusual—tennis has been witness to some incredible losing streaks in recent years. Vince Spadea holds the record on the men’s side with a mind-boggling 21 losses in a row in 2000; Donald Young, once a huge hope for American tennis, put together an almost equally abysmal 17-match skid in 2012. Just last year, former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone suffered nine straight losses.

But from every slump comes an eventual turnaround, and one of the more famous stories involves Jelena Jankovic. The Serbian is the owner of 13 WTA titles, five Grand Slam semifinal appearances, and a runner-up finish at the 2008 U.S. Open. But in 2006, coming off a season that included her first three titles and her first appearance in the Top 20, Jankovic lost 10 matches in a row.

The losing streak began shortly after Jankovic lost her final three matches of 2005. Similarly, Bouchard lost her final three matches in 2014, at the WTA Finals in Singapore. We may not have thought about them much at the time, with new years wiping the slates clean, but each blossomed into something ugly. Jankovic’s dip came at 21, the same age as Bouchard.

The similarities don’t end there. Jankovic’s low point was a loss to 193rd-ranked Julia Vakulenko in Charleston; Bouchard’s loss to 113th-ranked Tatjana Maria in the first round of Miami could be considered her nadir. All of their losses were to players they were expected to beat, the majority of which were ranked well outside the Top 20, with a few even outside the Top 50.

Jankovic went so far as to admit that she considered quitting tennis. “When [the losing streak] happened, it was tough time for me. I don't like to lose,” she said during a press conference at the 2006 U.S. Open. “I don't think anybody likes to lose. But for me, I'm a bad loser kind of.”

She kept plugging away. Her long-awaited “breakthrough” finally came in Rome, where, with her mother accompanying her, she reached the quarterfinals. “My mother was not traveling with me, then she came to Rome,” Jankovic said. “Then since then, I have a different feeling… It was such a change.”

After Rome, Jankovic piled together a 44-17 record, made her first Grand Slam semifinal appearance at the U.S. Open, and ended the year at No. 12. She was the world No. 1 less than two years later. The talent was always there, but sometimes, for reasons that are hard to explain, that talent doesn’t always translate into results.

Does Bouchard need her mom to travel with her? No—but at the very least, she should take a closer look at her team. Her coaching swap of Nick Saviano for Sam Sumyk at the end of 2014 has been anything but a smooth transition; Chris Evert and many others have strongly questioned the choice.

One thing we shouldn't question is Bouchard's love of the game. "I'm going to play no matter what, even if I'm on one leg," said Bouchard after her retirement on Wednesday. That doesn't sound like a player who's ready to throw in the towel after a tough stretch.

It’s tempting to hate on Bouchard after her many head-scratching losses, controversial Fed Cup behavior, devotion to off-court spotlight and apparent desire to have no friends on tour. But it’s more tempting to predict that the world No. 12 will eventually rediscover her game, like Jankovic did. A player of her caliber doesn’t just forget how to win indefinitely.

“Every time you fail you have to pick yourself up and keep going,” Bouchard said after her loss to Kristina Mladenovic in Birmingham. “That's what I've been doing in the past couple months, but it's still been happening. So I still need to keep going and have the belief that it'll turn around.”

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