After three consecutive victories, each one momentous for Genie Bouchard in its own way, it wasn’t surprising she had a letdown in the Madrid Open quarterfinals Thursday night.
That the 23-year-old Canadian came up against a nearly impeccable performance from Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova only added to the challenge.
Bouchard came out on the wrong end of a 6-4, 6-0 defeat which ends a run that could end up changing the direction of her season.
There were a few warning signs during an indifferent second set that wrapped up in a flash, despite a rain delay. But for the moment, considering how different the circumstances were from similar sub-par efforts over the last few months, it was hopefully just a consequence and not a return to the past.
Kuznetsova’s final stats were intimidating: 28 winners, just seven unforced errors. The numbers were about evenly split between the two sets.
Bouchard’s legs had little of the spring they had during her victories over Maria Sharapova Monday and world No. 2 Angelique Kerber Wednesday. Her post-match handshake had nothing of the intense eye contact, either.
And it couldn’t have been because the match against Kerber had taken much out of her physically. But the visible lack of energy didn’t help as she tried to track down what Kuznetsova was dealing up. Often, Bouchard was caught flat-footed; occasionally, she stumbled.
Kuznetsova’s brand stands apart from most of the other women on the WTA Tour. Most hit the ball very flat; Kuznetsova’s ball is heavy, with a lot of spin. And she has quick enough hands to be able to pull the trigger on a straight-out winner when she sees the opening, without appearing to expend much additional effort on the swing.
Coach Thomas Högstedt came out after the early break of serve in the first set. He assured Bouchard that while Kuznetsova had gotten off to a good start, her level was going to drop.
It’s a reliable go-to play for Högstedt during these on-court consults. But in this case, he predicted incorrectly. It never happened.
Bouchard had a small sliver of an opening at love-30, as Kuznetsova served for the first set at 5-4. But even that only came about after a couple of lucky breaks, including a let cord.
Once Kuznetsova saved that, she rolled.
“I played quite a good game,” Kuznetsova said afterwards. “I was a little bit not returning so well, and in the second set I played better.”
Bouchard didn’t earn her first break point until she was already down two breaks herself in the second set. Kuznetsova took care of a quality service return with a forehand winner from way behind the baseline.
The Canadian’s pace of shot in the second set was definitely lacking. She clearly had already made up her mind that it wasn’t going to be her day. And there was evidence to support that contention. But unlike the previous matches, she didn’t keep her competitive level up until the very last ball.
She also was far more agitated than her opponent during a fairly lengthy rain delay, when she was already down 0-4 in the second set. That likely spoke to her state of mind. If anything, a break like that can slow a hot player’s momentum, so it should have been welcome.
It had appeared the roof over the Caja Majica was closing. But when the rain came, the players had to wait until it did actually did close before resuming play. It took several minutes.
In a wide-open field, Kuznetsova is quietly making a case for herself as a French Open contender. She began the week ranked No. 9. If she can defeat No. 14 seed Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals, she would move all the way up to No. 5.
Kuznetsova was 19 when she won the 2004 US Open. She was 23 – Bouchard’s age – when she won at Roland Garros in 2009. It seemed then that there could be plenty more to come.
As consistent as she has been around the top of the game, as relatively injury-free as she has been, the Russian has never won another major. She may yet have another deep run in her, though.
Meanwhile, Bouchard exits with a long sought-after dose of confidence.
With her win over Kerber, she also will leave having finally risen in the rankings. Bouchard could have squeezed back into the top 40 with a win Thursday. Instead, she’ll settle for a rise of six spots, to No. 54, and can hope for more next week.
Unlike much of the season, Bouchard won’t wait weeks – or even a month – to get back on court. Her ranking wouldn’t grant her direct entry into next week’s Premier 5 tournament in Rome, which has eight fewer main-draw spots than Madrid. So she will have to take her chances in the qualifying.
Armed with some Madrid momentum, that task suddenly became a little less daunting.