PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Wildcard Eugenie Bouchard battled into her second quarterfinal of 2020 with a marathon 7-6(2), 6-7(2), 6-2 triumph over Tamara Zidansek in two hours and 53 minutes at the Prague Open, avenging a similarly epic defeat at Wimbledon last year.
The Canadian, who also reached the last eight in Auckland to kick off 2020, delivered payback for one of her most heartbreaking defeats of the 2019 season - a 6-3, 5-7, 8-6 loss to Zidansek in the first round of Wimbledon. Today would replicate a similarly tight dynamic, with Bouchard edging a first set characterized by several multi-deuce games, letting a 4-1 second-set lead slip as her opponent's elegant clay-tailored game came into its own but running away with the decider.
"I felt OK out there," assessed Bouchard afterwards. "At times I played well but at times I didn't play well at all - my opponent has a good game for clay, she really spins the ball up and she has a good forehand. So when I wasn't playing well, I felt she was controlling the play with her forehand, and when I was playing well I was dominating a little more - ultimately that's how I played well in the third set to win.
"I was pretty proud of myself with how I was able to bounce back after losing that second set. Obviously I was ahead, so I feel like I should have won that - but I regrouped and told myself to get back to playing my game, not letting her dominate but trying to step up and take advantage. I wanted to play my game and give myself the best chance, because if I started playing how she wanted to play - with her controlling it and me stepping back - that's not going to help me for the future anyway. So I told myself to get back to my basics."
Bouchard denied that her previous dramatic encounter with Zidansek had been a factor in her approach today - indeed, emphasizing that she aims to have the opposite attitude. "No, that match was not on my mind," she said. "This was so different. It's clay, it's a year later. It's important for me to learn, to maybe remember a couple of things I want to do on court, but not really to compare the matches. It's a new day, it's a new match, anything can happen - and that's how we try to see it."
Surviving the kind of wild, lengthy affair that would normally draw fans from around the grounds in a crowd-free situation was also a new experience. "We've been practising for months, so it feels like a practice match or an exhibition - but very real, because we have an umpire and ballboys," mused Bouchard, who was able to view the additional challenge as getting to the essence of the sport. "It's interesting, because tennis is already so individual - the fans can help you keep going if you're tired or it's getting close. I've definitely had matches where the fans have helped, for sure. But now with this, you feel even more like it's just you. You don't have teammates to help you - and now in this case, no fans. So it's probably a little tougher mentally.
"I tried to think of fans watching online, or my family waking up to watch - I know they're there somewhere around the world!"
Bouchard's aggressive intent was evident from the off as the World No.330 held nothing back on return, piling pressure on the Zidansek second serve in particular. This didn't always pay off in terms of accuracy, but it was sufficient to garner Bouchard the first break of the match for 3-2, which she sealed after four deuces with a reflexed pass as the Slovenian slipped on the clay in the forecourt.
But the Bouchard forehand was her immediate undoing as a series of mistakes beckoned the World No.72 back into the set - and suddenly it was Zidansek showcasing her own style, particularly when hitting out on her forehand and flicking delicate dropshots. The 2019 Nurnberg runner-up also proved adept at turning defence into offence, engaging Bouchard in a number of intriguing all-court exchanges.
Nonetheless, Bouchard survived a break point at 4-4 before the business end of the set was characterized once again by the fluctuations of her forehand. Aiming powerful returns directly at Zidansek's feet paid off as Bouchard came through a three-deuce tussle to break for 6-5, with Zidansek's own forehand proving less effective when rushed - but a flurry of errors from that wing meant that the 2014 Wimbledon finalist was unable to serve the set out. Quickly shaking that disappointment off, though, Bouchard played her best tennis when she needed it in the tiebreak, with all facets of her game clicking: forehands, drive volleys and a fifth ace helped her to dominate it.
With the first set under her belt, Bouchard played freely and her level rose accordingly. Now consistently able to take time away from Zidansek, the 26-year-old was able to make the most of being on the front foot, relentlessly punishing short balls and forcing errors from her opponent with depth and pace, resulting in a rapidfire break in the fourth game and a comfortable 4-1 lead.
But with her back to the wall, it was Zidansek's turn to find her cleanest stretch of tennis. The 22-year-old's light footwork enabled her to begin dancing out of the way of Bouchard's bullets more often, and an improved first serve percentage from 67% to 76% put her in immediate control of more points. In the seventh game, now striking her forehand with panache again, Zidansek got her opportunity when a Bouchard double fault brought up break-back point - and some luck when she converted it with a dead net cord.
Serving from behind, the two-time Bol 125K champion forced a tiebreak with a pair of efficient holds, and - in a reversal of the first set - dominated it with her forehand as the former World No.5 lapsed into error, ending with another untimely double fault and a shanked groundstroke.
Despite squandering her lead when seemingly in control, Bouchard remained positive enough to come out firing in the decider. Chasing down a dropshot to nail a backhand winner, the 2014 Nurnberg champion broke Zidansek immediately - and even though mistakes continued to creep into her ground game, solid serving enabled Bouchard to protect her lead.
Meanwhile, Zidansek's intensity level had dropped off sharply from her second-set comeback: the Acapulco quarterfinalist's first serve percentage fell to 59% while her unforced error tally rose alarmingly. Errant forehands put Zidansek down a double break - and this time, the lead was sufficient for Bouchard to close out victory.
Bouchard would still need to save a break point as she served for the win - but an efficient one-two punch got her out of trouble before another sequence of Zidansek groundstrokes over the baseline got the Canadian over the finishing line, setting up a quarterfinal showdown with No.3 seed Elise Mertens.