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After Her Dramatic Descent, Can Eugenie Bouchard Return To Tennis's Pinnacle?

Into the Hobart final, Eugenie Bouchard has won four straight matches for the first time since last year's Australian Open. Is it a sign of great things to come? Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Serena Williams aside, perhaps no tennis player generated as much interest and media buzz in 2015 as Eugenie Bouchard. She was tennis' new sure-swinging superstar: An ambitious, confident, fresh-faced, blunt-speaking representative of a generation who was meant to take the reins from Williams and her sidekicks.

But then came 2015: Her no good, very bad, outright disastrous 2015.

Bouchard waned before sputtering, posting a 7-4 record at the Grand Slams a year after going 19-4 and finishing as Wimbledon runner-up in 2014. She split with two high-profile coaches, and at one stretch lost 15 of 18 matches.

She started the season as world No. 7 and ended it ranked 49th. Most alarmingly, she suffered a concussion at the US Open after a fall in a darkened locker room, cutting short her season and igniting a legal battle between the Bouchard camp and the U.S. Tennis Association.

That all contributed to a soap opera-like build-up for 2016 and the tantalizing question the new season asks: What will Bouchard be in 2016?

"This year may be a lot easier for her than a year ago," says Rennae Stubbs, a former world No. 1 in doubles who is now a TV commentator. "A lot of questions will be answered in Australia. I always knew that 2015 was going to be a hard year for her because of her enormous 2014. She doesn't have the same expectations and pressure as she did a year ago, and I think that's going to free her up and let her play more relaxed."

If the first two weeks of this season are any indication, Bouchard is playing tennis more akin to that of her 2014 self than of the past 12 months. In the opening tournament of 2016, she won back-to-back matches in Shenzhen, China. This week in Hobart, Australia, she's advanced to the final, where only Alize Cornet stands in the way of Bouchard's first title since May 2014 in Nürnberg, Germany.

"The most positive thing to me is that she's over most of the concussion symptoms," says Pam Shriver, another former world No. 1 doubles player and ESPN commentator.

Bouchard's fall was a twist unseen by anyone who followed her nightmarish season. She had finally won back-to-back-to-back matches (for the first time since the 2015 Australian Open), and appeared to be rounding into form, due to meet Roberta Vinci in the fourth round in New York.

But that match never happened. Bouchard disappeared into her hotel for nearly two days after the rumored fall was confirmed. She walked gingerly on-site to Flushing Meadows to pull out of the tournament officially, hiding behind oversized sunglasses.

Just a month later she was back on court in Beijing, but after losing the first set to Andrea Petkovic, Bouchard called for the trainer, complaining of dizziness and subsequently breaking into tears. Her season was over.

It was a dark finish that has led to what Bouchard supporters hope is a rebirth. After working with Jimmy Connors briefly at the US Open, she is accompanied by well-known coach Thomas Hogstedt, who in the past has worked with players including Maria Sharapova, for the Australian swing. In a sense, there is nowhere to go but up. Her ranking is the lowest it's been since September 2013.

"Last year was such a true sophomore-slump disaster," Shriver says plainly.

For now, Bouchard is doing what athletes do best, by taking things one at a time: One day, one match, one point. She says she's pain-free, has no concussion symptoms, and no lingering injuries that have come and gone in her career in the recent past.

"That's the most important part right now is feeling healthy," Bouchard said after her first win in Hobart earlier this week. "I walked off the court feeling healthy, so that's a very good, positive sign for me."

She echoed that sentiment after her second-round win: "At this stage, it's one day at a time, one match at a time. There's no expectations in each match; it's really still a comeback journey for me."

In 2014, Bouchard's unlikely run came on the most unlikely of stages, tennis' grandest. While she made the semifinals of both the Australian and French Opens and the final at Wimbledon, she was 24-19 elsewhere, winning just the one title.

"She rose to the top at the biggest of tournaments, so as she tried to back that up the following year, every single player found out how to beat her," Stubbs says. "There were a lot of things she needed to improve on. I thought it would be very unlikely to do. Can she do that again? Absolutely. The biggest part of a great player is mental consistency. You have to want the pressure."

The pressure is most pressing the year after a big run, particularly in tennis where the 52-week ranking calendar means at an event a year later, you're trying to equal or better your result from the year prior.

The year after "is a hard one," says Sam Stosur, the surprise 2011 winner of the US Open.

"I mean, even finishing the rest of the year that year was difficult. Going back, if I could do it again I would probably change a few things. You know, it's one of those things ... the expectation was obviously there. You're kind of expected then to have another really good result."

Bouchard and Stosur were in very different places in their careers at the time of their respective results, but for Bouchard's year to be a good one, she'll have to shake off what ended up being a nasty year after a Cinderella one.

"This is an era of women's tennis when opportunities come when you're confident," Shriver says. "There are so few women who can maintain the level of belief ... that's different from generations past."

The question still remains: What really happened to Bouchard in 2015? Confidence? Perhaps. She signed with a new agency and took on some modeling gigs, becoming a magnet in the sport both domestically in Canada and around the globe. Her commitment may have wavered, her focus gone awry, her game may have slipped.

Whatever happened, she's appeared to begin to fix. For now, there is one thing on her mind: Win more tennis matches.

"It's a little step every day. Baby steps. I have a long way to go," she said. "I have no idea where my game is at. I still feel like I'm far off [from my best] personally. But, it's not too terrible."