LONDON – Grass may be the softest surface in tennis but for two of last year's stars of Wimbledon, it can also be the most unforgiving.
No. 12 Eugenie Bouchard, who capped off an incredible six-month run at the first three majors last year by making the Wimbledon final, lost 7–6, 6–4 to No. 117 Duan Ying-Ying in the first round on Tuesday. The loss prolonged what has been a five-month slump for the 21-year-old, who has now lost 12 of her last 14 matches. No. 3 Simona Halep, a semifinalist here last year, followed her exit shortly thereafter, losing 5–7, 6–4, 6–3 to No. 106 Jana Cepelova of Slovakia.
Bouchard can't replicate her 2014 run
Bouchard admitted she was unprepared for her opening match after being diagnosed with a Grade 2 tear in her abdomen last week in Eastbourne. Despite the injury, which forced her to retire from her last match, the thought of skipping her favorite tournament never crossed her mind.
"Probably would've have been smart to not play here, but I couldn't pass on Wimbledon," Bouchard said. "So I did kind of minimal preparation to save myself for the match." The lack of preparation showed on court, as she fired 23 unforced errors to 19 winners.
Despite the lack of form she was able to keep the scoreline close. But Duan's belief never wavered. After already playing three matches to qualify for the main draw, Duan was far more comfortable on the surface. She was able to use her power to keep Bouchard on her heels.
Now begins the rebuilding process. The Canadian's struggles in 2014 have stemmed from a combination of ill-timed injuries, a coaching change and the general stress of expectation. In the span of less than 12 months, Bouchard went from an eager upstart, celebrated for her ruthless bravado, to a player the rest of the tour relishes beating. The confident aura that backed her uber-aggressive play through 2014 is gone and the locker room has noticed.
Bouchard admits that she isn't as strong as she was last season. She has lost weight and the result has been a less powerful ball and more injuries.
"I'm not as strong as I want to be," she said. "I haven't been the past couple months. It's something I've realized and I've started to address. I want to find a good trainer who can make me as strong as I can be so I don't get these injuries."
Last year at Wimbledon, Bouchard never flinched when it came to questions about her ambition. When asked whether her immediate success on tour came as a surprise, she said no. This was what she had worked her whole life for and she was ready for the results to come quickly and immediately. As Bouchard said then, making a Wimbledon final was what she expected from herself.
But the rollercoaster's descent has been tough to watch. As she struggles to win matches and fix what is broken in her game, Bouchard has had to learn and believe in patience.
"It's been a huge learning process to have great results and then have so much attention, then have bad results, just learning about the ups and downs of life and tennis, how things won't always good perfectly like I expect them to," Bouchard said. "I'm always trying to keep the belief and stay true to myself and do what I need to do to become as good as I know I can be. So it's really just been kind of eye‑opening, a learning experience. But I'm good for the learning experience to be over now," she said, smiling.
Much of the discussion regarding Bouchard's slump leading into Wimbledon has been focused on her result last year. How will she deal with having to defend her final points from last year? How far will her ranking drop? Can she find the magic in time?
Her early exit answers those questions. She will fall outside the Top 20, but other than a block of points at the Wuhan Open (where she made the final last year only to lose, again, to Petra Kvitova) she has nothing to lose and is faced with an opportunity to build her ranking back up.
"In a way I'm going to be kind of happy to put this period behind me, for sure," Bouchard said. "Very disappointed in my last couple months. It has kind of been a stressful time, you know, these big tournaments that everyone was talking about to me. I'm going to be looking forward to not having people ask me every single day about the points I have to defend. That will be nice."
One big question Bouchard may have to consider is whether a coaching change is needed. After her successful partnership with Nick Saviano ended late last year, Bouchard hired Sam Sumyk after the Australian Open. She is 4-14 since the partnership began.
Asked whether a coaching change might be in the cards, Bouchard said, "Maybe I should. Yes, we've definitely not started well at all. But I believe in him and he believes in me. As of right now, it's still the plan. But, yeah, there definitely has to be some improvement, some changes, because I expect to do a little better than this.
Halep can't find her groove on grass
While Bouchard's struggles have been one of the dominant storylines of the 2015 season, Halep's more recent slump may be the more quizzical of the two. She started the season strong, with three titles in Shenzhen, Dubai and Indian Wells, along with a quarterfinal run at the Australian Open. Over the spring hard court season she lost just one match, to Serena Williams in the Miami semifinal. Since then she has failed to make a final. Prior to Wimbledon she admitted her clay season was disappointing, particularly after a second round loss at the French Open, where she was a finalist the year before.
"I had a few losses before coming here," Halep said. "My confidence wasn't too high. During the matches it's difficult because you feel the pressure. If you don't handle it there very well, you might lose. I knew it would be difficult, but not like today, to be honest."
Halep says her game is closer to where she wants it to be compared to how she played at the French Open. But when it comes to closing out matches, the nerves have been difficult to control. In her last two matches she's won the first set only to let the match slip away.
"I think emotional," Halep said, when asked what she struggled with most on court on Tuesday. "I wasn't there. I couldn't handle it very well. She came back in a good way with her game. She was pushing me a lot. She was aggressive. But I can say that I let her come in and play aggressive. Actually, about my game, I have no bad things. I'm confident in my game. But emotional and, like, inside power, it's not there 100 percent."
While Bouchard has kept plugging away in the midst of her struggle, Halep has seemingly panicked. After telling reporters at the French Open that she felt she was playing a more aggressive game rather than her more natural counter-punching style, she split with her coach Victor Ionita before Wimbledon (like Bouchard, Halep's successful partnership with Wim Fissette ended after last season). Against Cepelova, a talented Slovakian who beat Serena Williams last year in Charleston en route to her first WTA final, Halep struggled with her rhythm and was also dealing with a left foot injury after a nail appeared to come off.
"In tennis you have ups and downs -- many, I can say. I had a good start this year, but now I'm a little bit down. So I have to work more maybe to run fast back because I have the game. I have no problems with that. Just the confidence. If you work on it, you can handle it again."
This post will be updated.