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Beyond the Baseline

Eugenie Bouchard leads youth movement at the Family Circle Cup

Eugenie Bouchard shook off a post-Australia slump to reach the semifinals at Charleston. (Mic Smith/AP) Eugenie Bouchard shook off a post-Australia slump to reach the semifinals at Charleston. (Mic Smith/AP)

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Youth is being served at the Family Circle Cup, where three 20-and-under players have advanced to Saturday's semifinals.

Eugenie Bouchard, 20, and 17-year-old Belinda Bencic knocked out the top two remaining seeds in the quarterfinals on Friday. Bouchard defeated No. 8 Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, and Bencic upended No. 11 Sara Errani 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 to make her first WTA semifinal. Bouchard will play No. 40 Andrea Petkovic, while Bencic will face 20-year-old Jana Cepelova, who upset Serena Williams in the second round. Cepelova dismissed Slovakian Fed Cup teammate Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-1. It's the first time since 2008 that three 20-and-under players have advanced to the semifinals of a Premier-level tournament.

Coming off a three-set win over Venus Williams, Bouchard rebounded from a disappointing second set against Jankovic to play a focused, aggressive final set en route to her first Premier semifinal. Bouchard, last year's WTA Newcomer of the Year, has recovered well from a slight dip in form after reaching the Australian Open semifinals in her best result at a Grand Slam tournament. The Canadian said her disappointing results -- she entered this week having won only four matches in four tournaments since Melbourne -- served as a wake-up call. She returned to the practice court with coach Nick Saviano with a renewed purpose.

"I wouldn't say it was a slump, and it could definitely look like that, but it didn't feel that way," Bouchard said. "I felt like, OK, I lost to a few players who can play very well, and if I'm not at my top -- really anyone in the top 50, top 100, everyone can play. So maybe I just wasn't mentally pushing as hard as I can."

If No. 20 Bouchard advances to the final, she would pass fellow Saviano product No. 18 Sloane Stephens, 21, in the rankings. Much like her game, a balance between outright aggression and counterpunching, Bouchard's rise has been steady and unrelenting. Last year, she had to qualify for the main draw at Charleston. Now she's the highest seed left. Her hunger for success is palpable and her results continue to support her precocious ambition.

Jankovic became fatigued toward the end of the match, but she was impressed by Bouchard's ability to disrupt her timing by taking the ball on the rise.

"She's very solid," Jankovic said. "She stays so low and she takes your balls early off the ground, so even though you hit hard, she just picks them up so easily and directs them. That's her biggest strength, that she can absorb someone's ball and just use it."

The question now is whether Bouchard can sustain this type of success. So far there's no reason to believe she can't. She's a feisty competitor, and unlike most of her peers, she keeps an even keel throughout her matches. There are no tantrums or racket smashes. And while she's prone to lapses in focus or to straying from the game plan -- as most players are -- she's shown a veteran's ability to quickly right the ship.

Asked whether she believed she was the best pure competitor in her age group -- a list of players that includes Stephens, Laura Robson, Madison Keys, and Elina Svitolina -- Bouchard didn't hesitate. "I think so," she said. "I'm pretty calm on the court, and I'm never going to give up. I try to play one point at a time and not think about the result because that's out of my control."

Said Jankovic: "She has nothing to lose right now. She's not the favorite. When she will be one of those expected to win, it's going to be a little bit different. So far, when she plays the top seeds, she's the other player. So she can let loose and just play her game. And she's young and fresh and hungry and she wants to do well, so that's different."

Despite the reservations, Jankovic backed Bouchard's potential.

"I don't want to predict -- who am I to say how far she will go? -- but she has a great future ahead of her," Jankovic said.

Bouchard's semifinal opponent, Petkovic, agreed.

"She has an incredible mindset, good attitude and she's definitely one of the future stars," Petkovic said. "She already is. It's not a future anymore."

Earlier in the week, Stephens told reporters that she didn't feel pressure to succeed right now because she expects her career to last 10 more years and that more opportunities would come if she remained patient. Other younger players have also stressed the importance of being patient. Bouchard didn't buy into that philosophy, though. She's greedier than that.

"The game is a little bit older, with Serena, and Li Na, for example, doing so well in their 30s, but I'm playing here and now," Bouchard said. "I want to do the best I can right away. There's no point for me to just kind of be relaxed about it. Of course, in each match winning is out of my control, but I want to try to do the best I can as soon as I can, and I want to have 10 successful years and not five slow ones and then five good ones."

As for the 140th-ranked Bencic, her face lit up when a reporter told her she would be the newest teenage addition to the top 100 on Monday. The reigning junior French Open and Wimbledon champion won two matches to earn her spot in the main draw and has defeated Maria Kirilenko, Marina Erakovic, fellow teenager Svitolina and now Errani for her first top-15 win. Still playing under the WTA's age-restriction limits for the number of tour-level tournaments she can play, Bencic insisted her success here didn't alter her expectations for the year.

"No, it doesn't change because I didn't set some high goals, so I don't have to have pressure or something," Bencic said. "I'm just playing tournament by tournament. I'm not thinking about too far in front."

Bencic came into Charleston with just one main-draw win this season, but the green clay has suited her game and her confidence has grown from round to round.

"I didn't see [these results] coming, but I was hoping for them, and I was believing that someday they will come," she said. "I'm just really happy they came this week."

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