In 2014, Eugenie Bouchard was the World No. 5, a Wimbledon finalist at just 20, and one of the sport’s brightest new stars. Then everything fell apart. By March of last year, she had fallen to 332 in the world.
She remains one of the most popular and marketable athletes in world sport. But her glamorous social media presence hides years of heartache in the unglamorous world of tennis’s lower tiers, far from the bright lights and big paydays of the Grand Slams.
But after years of pain, ‘Genie is on her way back from the tennis wilderness, enjoying arguably the most successful month of her career to reach the verge of the top 100.
At 27, time is still on her side. Can she return to the dizzying heights of her early days? Or is this just a flash in the pan, a brief interlude in the ultra-popular Canadian’s disappointing slide from the top.
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Bouchard announced herself to the world as a teenager in 2013 when she rocketed from 144th in the world to 32nd. She went from playing defensive, baseline-covering tennis which had helped her win the 2012 Wimbledon Junior title, to a highly-aggressive, high-risk attacking style of play. It paid off.
The Canadian reached the second round at two Grand Slams and the third at another – each of those coming in just her first appearance at each event. She reached her first singles and doubles finals at the WTA level. She claimed two wins over top 10 players, and another against former world no.1 Ana Ivanovic on Wimbledon’s centre court.
She was named the WTA newcomer of the year, bagged a big endorsement deal with Nike. The Genie was out of the bottle, so to speak.
Then came 2014. The starlet took the world by storm. She reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open –in her first main draw appearance at the event – claimed her first-ever WTA title in a French Open warm-up. She crushed eighth seed Angelique Kerber at Roland Garros on the way to another semi-final.
Then, on the hallowed turf courts of the All England Club, Bouchard became the first-ever Canadian to reach a Grand Slam singles final. From 150th in the world to a Wimbledon final in 18 months. A star was born. The moment overawed her, and she slumped to a comprehensive 6-3 6-0 defeat to Petra Kvitova.
But Bouchard had well and truly announced herself on the world stage. She cracked the top five, lost another big final to Kvitova, notched more lucrative endorsement deals – including with Coca-Cola – and looked set to compete at the elite level for years to come.
Sadly, that wouldn’t happen.
2015 saw things fall apart. She made the quarters at the Australian Open, but struggled at key tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. At the French Open and Wimbledon, she didn’t even make it out of the first round. Just as quickly as she had surged to the top, she was out of the top 20 and struggling for form. Her new coach Sam Sumyk (previously having guided Victoria Azarenka to Grand Slam glory) lasted just six months before the axe fell.
And so Bouchard arrived at Flushing Meadows, New York having lost 15 of her last 17 matches and desperate to make something of a disappointing year. She surged into the fourth round, and picked up wins in the mixed doubles and women’s doubles.
Finally it seemed like her year from hell was at an end.
Then tragedy struck. Bouchard slipped and fell on the wet floor of a dimly-lit trainers’ room, hitting her head and suffering a concussion.
The confidence and spark that she had finally rediscovered was cruelly snatched away in the blink of an eye. She withdrew from the tournament.
Bouchard would play just one more match in 2015, when she was forced to retire in the first round of the China Open due to dizziness.
For two-and-a-half years, she would fight the US Tennis Association for compensation over the incident. Meanwhile, her struggles on the court would continue – and worsen.
She finished 2015 down in 48th. The next year was a story of inconsistency: a couple of decent matches would push her into the second or third round of a major, only for her form to fall apart.
In January, she reached the final of an Australian Open lead-up in Hobart. It was her first final since 2014, and she was obliterated 6-1 6-2 by Frenchwoman Alize Cornet. In March, she reached the final of another tournament – the Malaysian Open – but lost again despite winning the first set.
Little did she (or her legions of fans) know, but it would be more than four years before she would do battle for another singles trophy again.
She finished 2017 83rd in the world. The next year she hit a horror new low of 194th. By late 2019, 224th. Then, on March 16, 2020, the final rankings update before COVID-19 tore the tennis season to shreds, she became the 332nd-ranked woman in the WTA charts.
It was, to say the least, a staggering fall from grace.
Yet Bouchard’s popularity never wavered. From the moment she burst on the scene as a bright-eyed youngster, she has charmed fans and sponsors alike.
Today, her 2.1 million Instagram followers is the same as Naomi Osaka – the world number two, who last year became the highest annual earner in women’s sporting history, and this year notched her fourth Grand Slam crown.
Only Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and India’s most successful women’s player Sania Mirza (former No.1 in doubles) have more social media followers among women’s players. Only Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have more on the men’s side.
Her social media stardom was highlighted by a famous 2017 Twitter bet. During the Super Bowl, a random sports fan named John Goehrke tweeted Bouchard to ask her for a date if the New England Patriots fought back from a 25-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons.
She agreed. The NFL’s greatest player of all time, Tom Brady, pulled off the miracle and the Patriots won 34-28. True to her word, Bouchard took Goerhke on a date – courtside seats to a Brooklyn Nets NBA game – and sent the sporting world into a frenzy. The rights for a movie about their story were quickly snapped up.
It’s strange to think of Covid-19 as doing anything positive, but it’s fair to say the pandemic intervened at almost the perfect time for Bouchard. After five years sliding down the rankings, she had reached a dismal 332nd in the world, beset by a wrist injury.
Then the world tour ground to a halt. When things restarted in August, Bouchard was almost a different person – and an Australian was partly to thank.
Renae Stubbs, a six-time doubles Grand Slam winner (two of those in mixed doubles). A former world number one in the doubles rankings. A four-time Olympian and an 18-year veteran as a player.
As a coach, Stubbs had previously worked with Karolina Pliskova and Samantha Stosur.
Then she took on Bouchard. For the Canadian player, changing coaches had become almost an annual tradition. What was unusual was the victories that followed.
In her return to the tour in August, Bouchard (ranked 330th) beat world No. 40 Veronika Kudermetova in her first match back. It was her first win over a top-40 player in almost two years. She followed it with a gutsy win over the world number 72, and came oh-so-close to beating 23rd-ranked Elise Mertens in the quarter finals.
“I think at the beginning of it (COVID-19) I was talking with my trainer out in Vegas, Gil Reyes,” Bouchard told reporters from that tournament in Prague. “There are two different paths you can take this quarantine time, you can either be sad about it, depressed, and not do your job and not try to improve yourself, or you can try to work even harder and take the time and opportunity to get better.”
She got better. Besides her training with Stubbs, she played an exhibition event in the USA in June before the World TeamTennis series in July. That meant she was regularly practising and playing with elite players like Sofia Kenin (#4), Jennifer Brady (#14) and Venus Williams. It was a rare opportunity to play a high number of games – win or lose – in a short period of time, unlike in a traditional tournament where she had been losing early and moving quickly onwards to the next tournament without any real chance for development. COVID-19 had provided her a unique opportunity, one she grasped with both hands.
In September, charged through qualifying all the way to the final at the Istanbul Cup, beating the top seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. In her first final since 2016, she lost only in a third-set tiebreak.
It wasn’t just the victories that impressed – it was the manner of her play. Suddenly she was striking more cleanly than she had in years. The rollercoaster of her inconsistency during games remained, only now she was winning those yoyo-matches.
Bouchard had always been hard on herself. And playing such a high-risk style of tennis meant that if her confidence took a hit, she could lose matches quickly – like that 2014 Wimbledon final, which lasted all of 55 minutes.
Stubbs had said in September 2020: “Genie is such a fighter and will fight until the very end. But what differentiates the good from the great is the ability to let go of a game or a missed point and the ability to move on.
“When she didn’t have the confidence, she wasn’t able to get past that disappointment. But now she can do that, and it’s such a testament to the work she’s put in over the past six months.”
As well as her stronger mentality, her months of effort in the gym had paid off. The ankle braces she had worn on both legs for years were finally thrown in the bin. She looked fitter, stronger than she had in years.
At the French Open later that month, she reached the third round (her best result at any slam since 2017), only to fall to the Grand Slam’s eventual shock winner, Polish teen Iga Swiatek.
Bouchard finished the year 141st in the world.
This year, after a disappointing effort in qualifying for the Australian Open, she reached her first doubles final in two years at Lyon, France. Seven days later – just a week and a half ago – she reached her second singles final in six months at Mexico’s Guadalajara. Never before in her career has she achieved such a successful fortnight (barring that run in Wimbledon).
Bouchard is now ranked 118 in the world, her highest ranking since July 2019. It’s still a world away from fifth, and she’s not back in a Grand Slam final – not even close – but it’s a promising return to form.
So what next – is this just a flash in the pan? It may merely be a momentary renaissance in a player who – somehow – still only holds one tour-level singles title to her name, all the way back in 2014.
The truth is that many had expected her to retire long before today. Many thought she had retired.
And yet she showed remarkable persistence to grind away for years at the lower levels of the sport, far from the bright lights and TV coverage of the bigger tournaments. She was forced to battle in the kind of tournaments where teen talents learn their trade, or injured stars rebuild their game. The kind where fading veterans desperately extend their career for a few more months, a few more years.
As tennis writer Ben Rothenberg tweeted recently: “Credit to Genie Bouchard, millionaire star she is, for being willing to grind away far from the limelight all these hard years.”
Those sentiments were echoed by tennis podcaster Ben Lewis, who wrote: “After years of struggles with form, confidence, and injuries, it’s truly a treat to see her play some of her best (tennis) again.”
Having just turned 27 last month, Bouchard is far from a true veteran, despite those long battles with form and injuries. Time is on her side.
So too is New Balance, who signed Bouchard after Nike ended a partnership dating back to before her Wimbledon run in 2014. She unveiled the sponsorship on social media at the start of this month with the caption: “New Chapter.”
With a new coach, a new mentality and seemingly a new lease on her career, that motto seems more than fitting.
Now for Bouchard’s legions of fans around the world – the so-called Genie Army – there’s plenty of reason to look forwards, rather than dwell on the long-lost glories of that incredible season in 2014.
The clay season is about to begin. At last year’s French Open Bouchard reached the third round. Not since her ill-fated US Open campaign in 2015 has she reached the fourth round of a Slam. If she can do so on the stunning red courts of Rolland Garros in May, it might just announce to the world that one of the sport’s brightest stars is well and truly back.