Madrid Open: Eugenie Bouchard beats Maria Sharapova – Credit where credit is due

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Flailing tennis player Eugenie Bouchard defeated the previously drugs-banned Maria Sharapova 7-5 2-6 6-4 at the Mutua Madrid Open on Monday night. Here is my reaction.

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Even as she apparently thrived during the 2014 season – peaking in the world’s top five – I was one of Eugenie Bouchard’s strongest critics. And even now, I stand by many of my statements regarding the Candian. The over-hyped 23-year-old still lacks a Plan B behind her whack-every-ball-hard approach to tennis. She did have many a soft draw en route to elite status three years ago. She was over confident, she has seemed to lack focus, and her performances this season have been tragic. Almost losing to the unknown world no. 601  just last month is enough to back up that statement.

But credit where credit is due.

On Monday night in Madrid, Bouchard notched her first win over Maria Sharapova in five attempts. She did it hardly a week after criticising her former idol by calling her a “cheater”, and saying that her doping offences should have barred the five-time Grand Slam champion from the game for life.

This is the second time since her return from a 15 month suspension – reduced from two years – that Sharapova has lost out, in three sets, to a woman who has lavishly criticised the disgraced star.

Undoubtedly, the reception to her comments fired Bouchard up to claim victory against a woman who plays a style of tennis much akin to her own. But other quotes of the Canadian’s, from just a couple of days ago – and that did not have questionable motives behind them – finally helped me to understand where the former Wimbledon finalist (yes, that actually happened) is coming from. And they even generated some respect within me for some of her actions.

Talking about briefly leaving the WTA tour to descend to the lower-tier ITF circuit last month, the world no. 60 said: “I made the decision kind of against my coaches’ opinions. I told myself, ‘Look, you can’t win a match at WTA level. This is your punishment. You’re going down to the ITF.’ I just wanted to kind of ground myself a little bit.”

She continued: “It was eye-opening… A good reality check for me – even though the result wasn’t great.”

A while back, I questioned Bouchard’s lack of dedication to the sport of tennis. And yes, I still think that the Candian – who lost six straight WTA matches in the aftermath of her PR-reeking ‘twitter date’ and half-naked Sports Illustrated photo shoot – took her eyes off the prize for some time, distracted by all that comes with a small portion of tennis success. But these quotes reveal that the former rising star is willing to work for success in this sport – and that has been reflected in her two results in Spain thus far.

That said, I do believe that her ‘return to form’ cannot be decided after a single match.

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In her second round Madrid clash with Sharapova, Bouchard was facing an ideal match-up. She was coming in off her first WTA match win since January, against a respectable opponent in former world no. 11 Alize Cornet. And for an average to decent tennis player who has experienced some lofty moments on court, matches against the game’s top players – whether or not these players are currently returning from a lengthy drugs ban – are desirable. Not only can one play with little to lose, but they can also absorb the power and shotmaking skills of their opponent, taking advantage of the work from the other side of the net.

It is easier to face more consistent games than the hot-and-cold, occasional junk-balling styles of the lower ranked women. The latter requires one to produce their own power and to create their own rhythm, rather than just reacting and deflecting. As April proved, Bouchard much prefers gracing the big stages against the big names – and those are what she has been missing during her two and a half year slump.

Whilst showing off some fine defence, Bouchard and her lone game plan did plenty of absorbing and deflecting throughout Monday’s two hour 51 minute clash.

Perhaps we should not get carried away by the length and atmosphere of the Bouchard versus Sharapova match. While it contained flashes of brilliance, this contest was hardly one of sustained quality. Both women hit more unforced errors than winners, and neither managed to clock 70 percent of first serves. The coaching time-outs came in waves, hinting at mental frailty, and consolidating a break of serve seemed more challenging than climbing Everest. Indeed, in her final service game, a missed Sharapova groundstroke down the line saved Bouchard’s life in the match, as she experienced trouble on serve for the numereth time. She may have emerged victorious, but the 23-year-old got away with a lot under the artificial Madrid lights – against a player who hit zero aces to nine double faults, and still won five more points than her opponent overall.

Still, the main component in Bouchard’s small taste of previous success was her ballooning self-belief: A confidence so great that it verged on arrogance. The standard of Monday’s collision was not fantastic, but the final result – coming after months of turmoil – could be exactly what the nonseeder needs. She entered the main draw courtesy of a late withdrawal, but now Bouchard faces a third round clash with a seriously out-of-form Angelique Kerber – who has caused her little trouble in times gone by. If ever a draw of a top player was fortunate, this – against a no. 2-ranked player who was almost downed in the second round – could be it.

In summary, this win does not symbolise – as many of the media would wish to believe – that Bouchard is ‘back’. However many more match wins she secures in Madrid, multiple tournaments are needed to see if the Canadian can sustain the form that she sometimes displayed during Monday’s showdown.

Even then, game plans should need assessing – and technicalities addressing – if Bouchard is to return to the realms of the top 20.

Nevertheless, on Monday night, Bouchard went out onto a Premier mandatory stage to face a famous player she had ridiculed, and walked away victorious. And that mental boost could keep her away from a return to the ITF circuit for some time to come.

Now she needs to prove that she can beat the non-elite…

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Thanks for reading! After a busy period with other commitments, I am officially reviving The Tennis Journal. Let me know in the comments section what you thought of the Bouchard versus Sharapova clash! Was it all that impressive? Where do you see the Candian going from here?

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