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.