Eugenie Bouchard's Great Expectations

After a breakout season, the 20-year-old Canadian begins her second act at the Australian Open

Eugenie Bouchard serves in her first round match at the 2015 Australian Open. Credit: Hannah Peters/Getty

When a (then) 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard arrived at the 2014 Australian Open, she seemed primed to turn potential into reality. The Montreal native had gone through her first full season on the WTA tour, and even made a final in the small Osaka event. That first appearance in a tour final was part of a very respectable 13-5 run after the US Open that enabled Bouchard to finish the year ranked No. 32, and made it possible for her to be seeded at last year's Australian.

However inevitable Bouchard's rise may have seemed, few expected to see her name come out of the quarter of the draw that included Serena Williams. Bouchard was afforded the good fortune of facing women ranked 487, 100, 68 and 120 on her way to the quarterfinals. But from that point on, there was nowhere to hide. Genie faced a resurgent Ana Ivanovic, the former Australian Open finalist who had just vanquished Serena Williams. Bouchard showed impressive grit on the big stage, and overcame Ivanovic to reach her first ever Slam semifinal. As a side note, she was doing this in her first try at the Australian Open playing at the senior level.

That Australian Open run ended at the hands of eventual champion Li Na, but set the tone for a pretty spectacular year for Bouchard. She became the youngest woman in the top 10, won her first WTA title, reached the French Open semifinals and even appeared in her first Major final at Wimbledon. In the end, no other female tennis player won more matches at the four biggest tournaments the sport has to offer than Bouchard (no, not even Serena Williams). A Slam final and two semis are not only fantastic results for a given season – they're great career results for most tennis pros. And those kind of performances don't happen by accident.

2014 also showed evidence that there's room for improvement: Bouchard lost in her first match at ten of the 23 events she entered last year, and ended the year by losing all three matches she played in her debut at the WTA Finals, the prestigious year-end event that hosts the top eight women tennis players in the world. Not only did Bouchard lose those three matches against the cream of the crop, she failed to win even four measly games in any of the six sets she played.

Perhaps as a consequence of this last impression, there are quite a bit of questions surrounding Bouchard at the beginning of this year's campaign. Can she finish in the Top 10 again? Will she improve on last year and actually win a Slam? Was it all a flash in the pan? Predicting how young athletes will perform is always a foolhardy task, but a detailed look into Bouchard's game should help us get some answers.

At first glance, there's nothing particularly spectacular about the way Bouchard plays tennis. There's no huge serve, no jaw-dropping power off either her forehand or backhand. She's not the greatest defender out there, nor the greatest returner. In fact, if you look at this statistical summary of the 2014 season prepared by the WTA, you won't find Bouchard's name in it. Not once, even though the document lists the top 10 females in 10 different statistical categories. So how does Bouchard go from World No. 32 at the end of 2013 to her current rank of No. 7 (she was even as high as No. 5 at one point) without excelling at anything in an obvious way?

The answer is actually quite simple: Bouchard thrives thanks to a strict adherence to a coherent tactical approach.

Genie Bouchard is a baseline fundamentalist. At first this doesn't seem all that surprising or revolutionary – contemporary tennis is pretty much a baseliner's game. But Genie is absolutely fixated on straddling that baseline, no matter the cost. And once there, she is perpetually proactive about moving forward like a piranha smelling blood to attack any short balls. There's also little doubt in her mind about where her shots are supposed to go: Genie always looks to get her opponents on the run by hitting the ball into the open spaces of the court. Since it's difficult to attack from defensive positions, Genie is likely to get shorter and shorter balls from her opponents, and she's particularly good at putting those away. Bouchard lets her opponents know that no short ball will be forgiven, and that their only hope is to hit great shots on the run if they're going to escape.

The brilliance of this approach is that it not only recognizes a few of Bouchard's weaknesses, but also takes advantage of her strengths. For example, let's talk about Genie's ability to defend, which is a clear limitation. Why does she struggle with that aspect of the game? Bouchard is not a bad mover by any stretch, but she's also far from being explosive in the way Serena Williams or Angelique Kerber cover the court. And, like the rest of the WTA, she doesn't come close to Agnieszka Radwanska's almost supernatural ability to anticipate where her opponent's shots will go. Another issue that hinders Bouchard's game is her lack of easy power with her forehand and her backhand. Not having those easy swings makes it very difficult for her to generate consistent depth and pace when hitting the ball from defensive positions.

Hence, given that it's not in Bouchard's best interest to spend time merely retrieving balls and hoping for an error, the scheme turns a weakness into a strength simply by emphasizing Bouchard's court position. We know the Canadian can't blast away from a foot or two behind the baseline. But if she is hitting the ball from the baseline itself, or even a step inside it, her shots will tend to land in better positions across the net. The positive effect of this scheme is amplified by Bouchard's natural ability to take the ball early. This rare skill means that a player will hit the ball when it's bouncing up towards her instead of waiting for it to finish its upward trajectory. The instant benefit is that it takes away reaction time from an opponent, given that the ball is coming back to their side of the court earlier than expected. Thus, with an emphasis on court position, her impeccable timing and an unwavering will to move forward to finish points, Bouchard effectively disguises her lack of power, and at the same time, limits the amount of time she will have to spend defending. Brilliant!

Of course, this tactical scheme has its obvious frailties, which are exposed from time to time. For example, when Bouchard faces opponents with more firepower, she finds it difficult to get herself back to the baseline after being pushed away by a deep shot. It's hard for her to turn defense into offense, so if a more powerful opponent is dialed in, like Petra Kvitova was in the Wimbledon final, Bouchard will find it hard to have a say in the outcome of a match. Bouchard's success comes from taking advantage of short balls in order to generate even shorter ones, but if her opponent is playing at a high level, placing shots close to Bouchard's baseline, there won't be many opportunities for Genie to execute her constant pressure scheme.

The biggest downside to Bouchard's way of approaching the game is that it doesn't work if her focus wavers even in the slightest. If she becomes passive and stays behind the baseline, she'll get blown off the court. If she's not getting enough depth on her shots, she'll get blown off the court. And if she's erratic, well, the outcome in that case is obvious. Bouchard's margin for error is slim – she doesn't have the big serve to get her out of trouble, and she can't really summon a string of huge forehands or backhands to subdue her opponents. Genie has to be "on" for every point, every game, every set, every match. That kind of commitment is exhausting, and it tends to wear out when the results don't go favorably.

In this light, you might think that it will be extremely difficult for Bouchard to keep her place in the Top 10. But I would argue that her commitment to coherently aggressive tennis will likely keep her in that select group for a very long time. There's always room at the top for players who actively try to win, rather than merely hope to win, with every shot they hit. Plus, the level of aggressive tennis that can get Genie in trouble is not easy to execute for long stretches.

There's also the blatant hunger for more and more success. Bouchard has never given the impression of someone who's just happy to be there, content with what she's already achieved. She's carried herself as someone who belongs to the biggest stages of the sport, as her results at the four big ones in 2014 can attest.

Based on those results, it seems rather unexpected that Bouchard parted ways with longtime coach Nick Saviano, and replaced him with...no one. Bouchard is in Australia with Diego Ayala, by no means a big name in tennis coaching, and when she was asked to describe their relationship, this was her testy response:

"Well, describe him how you want. But for me, yeah, I mean, we decided to come to Australia together. I don't know where it's going to go, but that's the plan for now."

It might seem odd to have such a vague "plan" ahead of the first major event of the year – the one where Bouchard is defending semifinal points. But whatever the grand design is, Bouchard's Australian Open campaign at least got off to a good start after a 6-2, 6-4 win over Anna-Lena Friedsam and an even more impressive 6-0, 6-3 second round showing against Kiki Bertens. Things got even better for Genie before she even finished her first match, thanks to a few upsets:

Should Bouchard make good on her friendly draw and reach the quarters, she could potentially meet her childhood idol Maria Sharapova for the fourth time (Bouchard is 0-3 in these meetings). It would present yet another opportunity for the Canadian to improve on her mediocre record against Top 10 opponents (currently at 8 wins versus 16 defeats). Not only that, but a win against Sharapova would be the first for Bouchard (in eight tries) against the power trio within the WTA elite: Serena Williams, Sharapova and Petra Kvitova.

There could be no better way for the young Canadian to validate her tennis than with a win against any of these big-hitting women. And it's quite likely she'll have a few chances to do so not only this season, but in the coming years, too.