MADRID -- It was a reasonably routine qualifying victory in the relative obscurity of Stadium 3 at the Mutua Madrid Open. But for Eugenie Bouchard, this represented a huge leap forward -- and, at the same time, a blessedly backward-feeling bounce.
The 29-year-old Canadian prevailed 6-3, 6-2 over Elizabeth Mandlik in the second round of qualifying on Tuesday. That delivered her first main-draw WTA Tour 1000 berth without the benefit of a wild card in more than four years. Bouchard will plays fellow qualifier Dayana Yastremska in the opening round.
Afterward, speaking with three reporters, Bouchard was asked if it was a big moment. Bouchard responded with a soft sigh.
“Umm …” she said, tempered by a recent history of false restarts. “Yes and no. I’ve gotten a couple of good matches in. I’m just proud that I’m able to have a chance to play another match. Matches are what I need right now -- I’ve been off intermittently for a while.
“It’s like restarting at zero.”
Bouchard was talking about the Madrid draw, but she could have been describing the current state of her often cathartic career. Standing with her arms behind her back, blonde hair pulled tight by a lavender scrunchie, she candidly and thoughtfully discussed her early breakthroughs, the fallow period that followed and the grueling comeback from shoulder surgery.
Eleven years ago, she was the Wimbledon junior champion, a decade ago the WTA Tour Newcomer of the Year and one year later -- at the age of 20 -- a Wimbledon finalist. That same year, 2014, she was also a semifinalist at the Australian Open and Roland Garros and was ranked at No.5 in the world.
Today, she’s sitting at No.285 and has won only two main-draw matches this year. Her last tournament before Madrid was the ITF $100,000 in Portugal, where she lost her second match.
How does Bouchard process the semi-scuffling player she is today versus the breathless, incandescent kid who captivated so many?
“That’s a great question,” she said. “It’s hard to reconcile these two -- it’s almost like two different careers. It feels long and not long at the same time. That still feels like me, but sometimes I’m like ‘Oh, my God, that was so long ago.’
“I’m a different person, different player. So keep the memories, the confidence, the belief that I have been there but also realize that we’re a decade later and I have to move on and be who I am today. Deal with the players I have to deal with today.”
The most recent hurdle was her right shoulder, which required surgery and kept her off the circuit for some 17 months in 2021 and 2022. Bouchard said she is pain-free but clearly some rust has accumulated. The thing she loves about playing tennis, as opposed to team sports, is that destiny is largely in the hands of the athlete.
“It’s like being forced not to do what you love, a forced benching,” she said. “It really requires a lot of patience, and it took me awhile to come back.
“And I’m really not that patient, so I had to really work on that. But I knew that I always wanted to come back because I didn’t want an injury to dictate my career.”
Few would have blamed her if she had stepped away for good. That promising start led to a series of lucrative endorsements, and Bouchard swiftly and shrewdly became a social media phenomenon. She’s currently followed by 2.4 million on Instagram and 1.6 million on Twitter. She currently represents New Balance gear and Yonex racquets. Her net worth is reportedly in excess of six million dollars.
She could probably live comfortably the rest of her life without ever hitting another tennis ball.
“You know,” Bouchard said, “I could. I could just chill I guess for the rest of my life, but that’s not who I am. That’s why I achieved the success I did. Because I’m a fighter and I love to work hard. And I could sit on my couch and watch Netflix -- and that sounds appealing for sure -- but after two days I would go crazy.
“I would need a project, something to do and I’m like, `While I’m physically still young enough why not still do tennis?’ I’ll pursue other projects later on, but right now let me just see what I can do until I decide not to play anymore.”
Her near-term goals are quite simple: get back to the Top 100 as soon as possible, so she can stop using her protected ranking. She wants to play the big tournaments again, the Grand Slams, because she said that’s when you start to feel like a player on tour. The implication being, it’s been a while since she felt that way.
When Bouchard didn’t follow up her breakthrough season with similar success, she remembers the backlash of “unjust hate” on social media.
“Looking back, I was still Top 50 in the world,” she said. “It’s still amazing to be 50 in the world. And you can’t win all the time unless you’re Novak [Djokovic] or Rafa [Nadal].”
Emma Radacanu, who won the 2021 US Open at the age of 18, has experienced a similar backlash. She won 10 matches, including qualifying, without dropping a set and became the youngest woman to win a major since Maria Sharapova in 2004 and the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam singles title. She’s currently ranked No.85.
A high-profile in professional tennis, as Bouchard knows so well, can be a marvelous platform. That comes with a formidable downside, too.
“I see lots of similarities,” Bouchard said of Radacanu. “I feel for her in the sense. She has a great life, she’s set for life and she’s had great achievements. But I can understand a little bit, possibly the pressure, the scrutiny. She tweeted something, posted something about not doing tennis one day and people were like, `Why don’t you go practice.’ I was like, `Oh, my God, I went through that six, eight years ago.’ Haters will hate, you know what I mean?
Bouchard correctly considers herself “a pioneer” in athletic social media. It’s what people choose to show the world, she said, essentially a highlight real -- that often does not reflect reality.
“I’ve known all along who I am and what I do,” Bouchard said. “And look, lots of tennis players are posting -- people post more than me these days. I’m so happy that these days it’s so much more normal.
“As long as you don’t get too distracted with it, stay focused on your No.1 goal. Why not? Life is great. Just don’t put us in a box.”