<
>

Bouchard's stellar, saga-laden season

It’s hard to pick anyone but Eugenie Bouchard as the most improved player, WTA division, for 2014. But if you were to award her a plaque to commemorate her breakout year, it might come with a warning label: Overexposure may be hazardous to your health.

Bouchard is perched close to the top of her world. She’s just 20 years old, but she reached two semifinals and a final at Grand Slam events this year. Credit an aggressive baseline game and a stable and courageous temperament. Her wins were predicated upon quick reactions and the ability and willingness to take the ball on the rise, from inside the court. Peaking at the most important of tournaments enabled her to vault from a ranking of No. 32 at the start of 2014 to her present No. 7. (She hit a career-high No. 5 along the way.) To top it off, Bouchard is charismatic and highly marketable, and she hails from a prosperous, tennis-conversant nation (Canada) that has been starved for a world-class female champion.

That potent combination of accomplishments and qualities has made her an overnight sensation. Yet in the past few months, she has seemed less star than star-crossed. Has a most improved player at the end of any year gone into the following one with as many turbulent questions roiling over her head as this 5-foot-10, sturdily built Quebecoise?

Bouchard burst upon our consciousness when she broke through to the Australian Open semifinals (l. to champion Li Na). She went on to claim the first -- and thus far only -- title of her career in late May, at Nurnberg, Germany. A first win is always a special moment for a pro, but in that one she didn’t beat a player ranked higher than No. 52. Nevertheless, Bouchard then powered her way to the semis of the French Open, where she lost once again to the eventual champ (Maria Sharapova). The Canadian hit the zenith of her year at Wimbledon, where she made the final. But Bouchard was beaten, swiftly and mercilessly, in a credibility-straining 6-3, 6-0 display of firepower by now-two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

Then the lug nuts began to spin loose. Withdrawing from her first summer hard-court event (Citi Open) with an injured right knee, Bouchard did not make her North American debut until her hometown event, Montreal. She seemed fine physically but panicked and choked in her first match, losing a three-setter to American qualifier Shelby Rogers. Things went downhill from there.

Sources close to her camp say that the knee injury kept Bouchard from developing adequate fitness for the US Open, where she made the fourth round but was upset by No. 18 Ekaterina Makarova. Bouchard rebounded to make the Wuhan final (l. to Kvitova) but was thumped in the opening round in Beijing (l. to Sabine Lisicki). Her results were indifferent for the rest of the year, and she left the Singapore WTA Championships without winning a set -- or more than three games in any set -- in any of her three round-robin matches. After she lost a 6-1 first set to Ana Ivanovic, Bouchard complained to her coach, Nick Saviano: “Why am I even playing this tournament?”

Meanwhile, Simona Halep, the other viable most improved player candidate, made a statement more typical of a surging player. She beat Bouchard, Ivanovic and Serena Williams in the round robin and took out Agnieszka Radwanska in the semis before Williams gained revenge by winning the final. Halep ended on a high note, rising to No. 3 at the final event of the year.

But there was more to come: In November, Bouchard and Saviano announced that they had terminated their relationship. And around Thanksgiving, Bouchard pulled out of a team exhibition match in India, citing an unspecified injury. All she said (in a news release) was: “I’m really disappointed I won’t be able to compete in the IPTL (International Premiere Tennis League) this year due to an injury I suffered in practice.”

The most disturbing element in Bouchard’s complicated saga is the breakup (by mutual consent) with her coach, Saviano. A coach whose reputation is a lot stronger among tennis insiders than the media and fans, he has declined to say anything other than how proud he was to help Bouchard, with whom he worked since she was a 12-year-old, achieve that No. 5 ranking. He has wished Bouchard the best of luck. When coaches and/or players decline to give any solid reasons they’re breaking up (it’s unlikely money is the culprit here, as Saviano has a successful tennis academy), it suggests that something has changed dramatically in the nature of their relationship.

Bouchard probably will need all the luck Saviano and others wish upon her for 2015, especially if her injuries were as impactful -- and persistent -- as it appears. She has loads of rankings points to defend and a great big target on her back. All eyes will be upon her, the way they once were on Sloane Stephens. The need to juggle her career as a tennis-transcending star surely will constitute a distraction for Bouchard. The challenges seem formidable, but then this lady has one great asset as she confronts them. Asked in a conference call recently whether she’s comfortable with all the attention she’s received, Bouchard conceded that she needed “to manage my time better.”

She also said, pondering the price of her high profile: “I knew what I was signing up for. If I didn’t want attention, I would have been a librarian.”

This clearly is one tough young lady. She’ll need to be, given what lies ahead.