MELBOURNE, Australia — Don’t let the Barbie blonde hair and made-for-billboards smile fool you. Eugenie Bouchard is a jock. A gamer. A no-nonsense, crack-you-in-the-mouth-and-leave-you-dusting-yourself-off kind of pro. And now that she’s into her first Grand Slam semifinal after a 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 win over No. 14 Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open on Tuesday, she may be ready for prime time.
The cameras will come calling, her fan army will grow and the spotlight will burn brighter in a sport constantly searching for the next big thing. There will come a day when Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are no longer around to sell tickets. The WTA needs new stars, and with her breakout run, Bouchard is poised to make her case.
But before I go on, again, I can’t emphasize this enough: Genie Bouchard is a jock.
Bouchard’s transformation over the last year and a half from a talented but underpowered junior champion into one of the most promising young stars in the game has been nothing short of incredible. While other young talents like 18-year-old Madison Keys, 20-year-old Sloane Stephens and 19-year-old Laura Robson opted for the professional ranks exclusively by the time they were 18, Bouchard chose to keep playing the juniors. She became the first Canadian to win junior Wimbledon, in 2012 at 18, a late age to still be competing at the junior level and winning titles.
Bouchard says the decision to stay in the juniors longer than her peers helped prepare her for the transition to the senior tour.
“Winning junior Wimbledon gave me a lot of confidence,” she said after her fourth-round win. “Right away I transitioned into the pros really well. So I don’t know. A year and a half is a long time, too. It’s not something that surprises me.”
It may not have surprised Bouchard, but as a junior, her game looked nothing like the aggressive, big-hitting style that has been so successful on the WTA Tour. She played a smaller game than her tall, athletic frame encouraged, content with grinding down her opponents by defensively putting balls back in play and seldom risking the big cut.
Here are highlights from a Rogers Cup match that shows off her former style.
That sort of go-fetch approach can work in the junior ranks, but it’s tough to bring it to the women’s tour, where the players are fitter and stronger and hit much harder. That’s why Stephens, Keys and Robson have all been touted from such a young age despite a lack of sustained success as juniors. They had weapons, whether it was speed or power, and that’s what it takes to win on the pro tour.
When Bouchard began her first full WTA season in 2013, she completely remade her game under the tutelage of former coach Nathalie Tauziat. The changes continued this offseason when she returned to her old coach, Nick Saviano. The serve got bigger. The court position was closer to the baseline. The intent went from grinding to bashing. And she started winning.
“Just in this past offseason I was working on my serve, trying to hit a bigger serve, bigger shots,” Bouchard said. “For sure, you need to have weapons on the pro tour. Just trying to work on them, get them better, as well as the mental side, just trying to be tough in the matches. Whereas in the juniors, maybe the girl will crack or something. But in the pros here, it’s really tough match after match.”
Ranked No. 144 at the beginning of 2013, Bouchard reached the quarterfinals at the Family Circle Cup in April and her first WTA semifinal, at the Strasbourg International, in May. That run of form set her up for her first complete-match win over a top-20 player, a 6-2, 6-3 upset of Ivanovic on Centre Court at Wimbledon. She capped her season by making her first final, at the Japan Open, launching her to No. 32 in the year-end rankings, the highest for a teenager.
Now, just a year and a half into becoming a full-time WTA pro, she’s into the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament.
“She has very bright future,” Ivanovic said after the loss. “She’s a very aggressive player. It’s sometimes very hard to read her game. There are no real patterns, like with other players. She’s a great mover.”
Aside from her aggression and speed, what is the most intriguing about Bouchard is her no-nonsense demeanor. Other players, both older and younger, show the strain and stress of pressure when the big moments come. Bouchard barely flinches. The same can be said about her off-court personality. She’s there to get a job done and that’s her only goal. She has a singular focus, and that keeps things easy.
“I’m a really focused person, really driven,” Bouchard said. “So off the court I’m kind of almost impatient in a way. I like to get things done. On the court, I’m the same way. In the point, I really just want to play my game, be aggressive, take it to my opponent, and not just wait around and wait for opportunities.”
She won’t have to wait around for opportunities anymore. She may not have Stephens’ charisma, Robson’s precocious wit or Keys’ disarming charm, but that might be precisely why she wins. Earlier this week, Bouchard was asked how she takes her mind off tennis during Slams. The answer: She doesn’t.
“I love tennis,” she said. “It’s my life. So thinking about tennis all the time is kind of what I do. So I don’t really try to get away from it too much. Once in a while, yes. But it’s my job.”
Things just aren’t as complex in Bouchard’s world and that plays in her favor. Her marketing potential is undeniable, and she did an offseason media blitz around Canada. Tennis is still making its way into the public consciousness of the hockey-obsessed nation, but between Bouchard and Milos Raonic, it’s well on its way.
So how will Bouchard handle the attention? Ivanovic, who had to deal with intense spotlight after breaking onto the scene in 2007, believes it depends on Bouchard’s personality.
“Some people love the fame,” Ivanovic said. “They embrace it in different ways. For me, I was kind of shy about it. But I think it’s just most important to stick with her team and just keep doing the same things and believing in herself.”
Bouchard doesn’t have a problem believing in herself. Ask her if she’s surprised at being a Slam semifinalist at 19 and she’ll say “no.” Ask her if she’s surprised that she beat a top-15 player and she’ll say “no.” Ask her if this feels like a dream and she’ll say “no.” Her uncomplicated nature and approach to the game make her the most mentally poised player of her generation right now.
Genie Bouchard is jock. And don’t you forget it.