Eugenie (Genie) Bouchard walked on to Kia Arena for her first-round qualifying match at the Australian Open to Gotye’s anthem, ‘Somebody That I Use to Know’ in what could be considered an apt juxtaposition of Genie’s former world-beating status and the relatively lowly grind of grand slam qualifying.
Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed Genie Army that had assembled at Melbourne Park’s newest show court, the Canadian’s Australian Open campaign was over in a matter of hours after going down to eighteen-year-old American Ashlyn Krueger.
It’s been a long few years for the former world number 5 and 2014 Wimbledon finalist who only recently found her way back onto the match court following a lengthy shoulder injury.
In truth, it’s been a long time since Bouchard has been able to string together consistent time on the court; and consistently quality tennis for that matter.
After bursting onto the scene courtesy of her junior Wimbledon triumph, Bouchard was ranked in the world’s top 5 by age 20 having reached a Wimbledon final and the final four at both the Australian Open and the French Open in 2014.
Bouchard’s meteoric rise included a series of high-profile, blue-chip endorsement deals.
To name a few, Bouchard had signed lucrative contracts with Coca-Cola, Babolat, Nike, and Canadian telecommunications giant, Rogers Communications.
One British publication even crowned Bouchard as the ‘World’s Most Marketable Athlete’ ahead of the likes of Neymar Jnr, Steph Curry, and Usain Bolt.
However, that’s basically where the fun stopped for Bouchard. Bouchard’s career has since stalled and, frankly, fallen off a cliff.
Declining form, an untimely concussion, a subsequent two-year lawsuit, and, perhaps, the pressure of being the new tennis ‘it girl’, all contributed to an elongated rough trot.
By the end of 2019, Bouchard rode a thirteen-match losing streak all the way down to 262 in the rankings.
Throw in a pandemic and a seventeen-month shoulder injury and it’s easy to see how Bouchard was completely unranked by mid-2022.
Naturally, being an individual of such notoriety, everyone has a theory as to how Genie fell so far. Some point to her stubborn attitude; others suggest she wasn’t ready for the fame she received; many believe her social media status or off-court hobbies hinder her progress.
Sam Smith, a former British player turned commentator hypothesised she was simply too raw to handle her rise.
“It’s a bit of a script where life came at her pretty quickly with big contracts, big sponsorships, a lot of attention back in Canada, and she just wasn’t ready for it and I don’t think her game was ready for it either,” Smith previously told the Wide World of Sports.
“Technically she wasn’t maybe as sound as some of the other top players. When you have a big breakthrough obviously everyone’s looking at your game. So the following year everyone knew what to do and it doesn’t take a lot for things to start unravelling and that’s what happened, it just unravelled and unravelled.”
Nevertheless, Bouchard is now back on tour after utilising a protected ranking (and the odd wild card given her pulling power) to bring her ranking up to 317 within a matter of months after a few solid wins to end 2022.
Her determination to keep trying to climb the proverbial tennis mountain is something to be admired.
As one would expect, returning to the WTA Tour is easier said than done and Bouchard was taken aback by the frenetic pace of match play.
“My first, first match [in Vancouver], I felt like the ball was coming at me so fast,” Bouchard recently told the WTA website.
“I was playing a girl ranked 200, and obviously no disrespect to her, but I literally thought I was playing Serena. Her ball was coming so fast at me, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
That aside, the latter half of 2022 symbolised a big step forward for Bouchard given her troubles in recent years.
“I played three months straight from August until November, and I didn’t have any issues with my shoulder. After playing a lot, sometimes you’ll get a little bit tight, but it’s very normal and expected. I’m really looking forward to a full 2023 schedule,” Bouchard said.
Speaking exclusively to The First Serve, a fellow Canadian, Stephen Boughton, founder of The Slice Tennis – a Canadian-born multimedia tennis platform – believes that the public’s expectations of Genie have lowered in recent times and her fellow Canadians just want to see her do well.
“We look at our players in eras. There was the Genie and Milos era that put Canada on the map in terms of singles tennis. Whereas now it feels like we are in a different era with Felix, Denis, and Andreescu”, Boughton said.
“It feels like Genie’s time has passed. She was such a big star in tennis. She had such a big year in 2014 and her career didn’t follow that same trajectory. But everyone just hopes to see her do her best and get back as high as she can.”
Nonetheless, the mere fact Bouchard is back competing and willing to start her rankings climb again is a testament to her commitment given the opportunities available to Bouchard off-court.
“There’s always been a lot of [external] speculation, you know, people question how much she loves her tennis, whether she should be a model instead, but the fact she’s still out here grinding shows that fundamentally she’s still a tennis player and she loves her tennis. She said recently she hasn’t even considered retirement” Boughton said.
“It’s definitely a grind to know you’ve been at the top then having to play at these lower tournaments.
“I think that’s why most people want to see her do well. People respect that she’s doing this despite her stardom and [probable] financial security.”
The big question now is how far can Genie go. With all her protected ranking entries exhausted, Bouchard will need to improve her ranking by a further 80 or so places to compete in the qualifying event for this year's Roland Garros in May.
According to Boughton, for Bouchard to reach her goals of being a big-time WTA player again, she’ll need to lift her game, suggesting Genie will need to go “close to building a 50% win rate on the WTA Tour” this season to show she is tracking favourably against her objectives.
“I know she’s super competitive and she wants to get back to the top 100 and compete for big titles so I think it has to be that this year. Then after that then it has to be that she starts finding ways to win like she use to because I don’t think she’s committed to changing her game style.
“The bigger question for me surrounds the lack of evolution in her game from 2014 to now.
“There are better defenders on the WTA now and her game isn’t as potent. Variety is needed to win in different ways and it doesn’t seem as though she’s added enough variety to win a match in different ways.
“It’s not impossible to move vertically. Look at Caroline Garcia. She was ranked around the 60s in mid-2022 then was arguably the hottest player on tour by the end of 2022.
“If she could get back to her best, it would be great for the wider tennis ecosystem to drive attention to the sport.
"She’s one of those players who transcended tennis to be where she is today. If she can [come back to the top of the game] it will benefit everyone.”
Whether Genie Bouchard is able to completely overcome her latest setback and return to the top 100 (or higher) remains to be seen.
She’s been in this position before and, realistically, things haven’t trended upwards for the better part of a decade.
It’s a helluva long road back. Many people in her position wouldn’t even bother. You’ve got to admire that.