NEW YORK – Heading into last year’s U.S. Open, EugenieBouchard was the WTA’s new rising star, the sport’s new it-girl who seemed bound for instant success. But one year later, the Canadian drew little attention entering the final Grand Slam of the year, only making headlines when news surfaced that Jimmy Connors was offering the 21-year-old his tutelage.
Yet just days into this year’s U.S. Open, renewed confidence and a little bit of luck have combined to possibly change Bouchard’s fortunes.
Before the U.S. Open began, she was just 9-17 on the year and hadn’t won consecutive matches since Indian Wells. After falling in the first round of the French Open earlier this summer, Bouchard was advised to skip Wimbledon because of an abdominal muscle tear, but she played anyway. She lost in straight sets in the first round. In August, she won just one match in three tournaments.
But in New York this year, Bouchard has benefitted from a good draw and a bevy of upsets in her quarter. Three seeded players in her half of her quarter lost on the opening day of the tournament: No. 7 Ana Ivanovic, No. 10 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 21 Jelena Jankovic. But more importantly, Bouchard is starting to resemble the player that captivated women’s tennis last year.
After beating Alison Riske in straight sets on Monday, Bouchard pulled together a 6–3, 6–7(2), 6–3 victory over Polona Hercog on Wednesday. In front of a supportive Grandstand crowd, which included a sizable brigade of Genie’s Army—one of whom twice belted out opening cadence of “O, Canada,” failing to attract any backup vocalists on both attempts—Bouchard channeled her own visible intensity into something she hasn’t conjured much as of late: resiliency in the third set.
The decider almost wasn’t necessary. After breaking Hercog at 4-4 in the second, Bouchard could have ended the match by holding serve. Instead, she failed to win a single point. Her unforced errors mounting—she tallied 22 in the second set—Bouchard started to crack. During the tiebreak, she dropped her racket to the ground in disappointment after a double fault and stomped her foot in disgust after an unforced error. After Hercog forced a third set, Bouchard tossed her racket against her chair.
“I was frustrated,” Bouchard said, adding that she felt she was too hesitant on her serve late in the second set, during which she dropped three service games. “Just felt like I wasn't doing the right thing.”
The Bouchard of 2015 might have folded in the third set after letting victory slip away in the second. Before Wednesday, Bouchard had lost her last eight three-set matches, only winning one this year. But the Bouchard who took the court in the third set hardly resembled the player who only won a single game against Roberta Vinci not even 10 days ago. She resolved to play more aggressive in the third set, and it paid off: She jumped out to a 4-0 lead and showed closing ability that she’s seemed to lack this year.
“This year I've had a couple matches where it's been tough to close out,” Bouchard said after the match. “I just tried to block that out of my mind, block the outcome as well out of my mind, you know, and just keep playing tennis. Keep trying to play good tennis.”
And she did. Serving for the match at 5-3, Bouchard was relentless. On one point, Hercog stroked the ball with pace and precision to each alley, but Bouchard ran down every shot. After dashing to retrieve a backhand, Bouchard’s bright orange visor flew off her head. Hatless, she charged toward the net and miraculously connected on an approach shot, seemingly surprising Hercog, who flubbed a return volley. Bouchard pumped her fist wildly and, looking toward the ground, emitted a triumphant scream. The final point of the match was similar: Hercog played aggressive, running Bouchard around the court, but Bouchard was up for the challenge. When a Hercog forehand sailed long, Bouchard dropped to one knee. More fist pumping. More screaming.
The celebration might seem excessive for a second-round win over an unseeded player, but Bouchard had finally won two consecutive matches—“I know. It’s like a huge deal,” she said with a smile after the match.
“I had so much confidence last year. This year, after losing a couple matches, I felt like that went down a little bit, even though it shouldn’t have,” Bouchard said. “I feel like I’m rebuilding that. It’s definitely helping me on the court.”
Bouchard advances to play Dominika Cibulkova, who upset Ivanovic in the opening round. Bouchard won’t face a seeded player until the quarterfinals, and considering the way she’s playing, a semifinals berth suddenly doesn’t seem so improbable. The amalgam of her reinvigorated play and favorable U.S. Open draw may offer the opportunity to escape the burden of expectations and pressure created by her meteoric rise.
“Yes, your life changes a little bit. There is an adaptation period,” Bouchard said. “I feel like I’m past that now.”