A city that’s been welcoming in the past, a new surface, but unfortunately the same tough result for Genie Bouchard.
The 24-year-old Canadian was defeated by wild card Sara Errani of Italy, 6-4, 6-4 in the first round of the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C Tuesday.
It was a match that featured a familiar pattern. Bouchard had some very good moments. But in the important moments, she had her worst moments.
Late in the sets, on break points, when things could have turned around, her shots failed her.
Bouchard originally was given a wild card into Charleston, which would have been her fourth of the season after free passes in Hobart, Taiwan and Indian Wells.
She ended squeezing into the final spot in the draw on her own ranking. Errani, currently ranked 16 spots higher at No. 95, lifted her own ranking too late for the entry deadline and as a former Charleston semifinalist, was given a wild card.
What a way to finish, @SaraErrani!
— WTA (@WTA) April 3, 2018
Clay Errani also match tough
There is a world of difference between the two players, beginning with the fact that Errani thrives on the clay, even if the Har-Tru surface used in Charleston is faster and doesn’t play the same as the real thing.
The 30-year-old Italian handled the one-directional wind a lot better with her safer topspin shots. And she identified the sharp contrast between one end of the court and the other, and thus adjusted, more quickly than Bouchard did.
Bouchard might well have been helped by the presence of a coach to come on court and offer some advice.
But Harold Solomon is history. And 2018 hitting partner/occasional coach Robbye Poole was not on hand in Charleston.
So the struggling Canadian went it alone, with only physical trainer Scott Byrnes and mother Julie Leclair in the stands for support.
The other thing is that Errani, whose ranking was falling even before her two-month suspension last summer for a positive drug test, has played a lot of tennis since serving her suspension.
She was grinding it out from the day the ban ended last October. Errani played six tournaments and 25 matches (19 in singles – she went 14-5 – and six in doubles) before the end of the season. This was the 22nd singles match for the Italian in 2018; Bouchard has played barely half that number.
The contest was so far removed from the last meeting, four years ago at Indian Wells.
Errani was in the top 10 then. Bouchard had just arrived in the top 20 after her Australian Open semifinal and was about to go on her career-making run.
Bouchard routined Errani 6-3, 6-3.
Tuesday, Errani still looked as motivated and eager as she always has. Meanwhile, Bouchard was tense; the footwork crucial to success in that kind of wind a casualty of those nerves.
“More matches will help me out”
Speaking to the media in Charleston afterwards, Bouchard seemed to acknowledge that accepting the wild cards wasn’t much good – except perhaps her bank account in certain cases – if she couldn’t take advantage and win some matches. If anything, it only added to the pressure that has been a constant over the last several years.
Genie Bouchard said she plans to stick to smaller tournaments below tour level for the next few months after Bogota. Spoke cogently about the downward cycle she's been in results-wise. pic.twitter.com/49eHbTNbm0
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) April 3, 2018
She also acknowledged that perhaps she had put herself in some tough situations in that sense, which is a perceptive thing to say out loud, in front of the media.
Really interesting stuff from Canadian Eugenie Bouchard- really in a rut right now, losing her first match today at the Volvo Car Open– good take on what she needs to do to get back on track. pic.twitter.com/KBFrW3Vb8n
— Scott Eisberg (@SEisbergWCIV) April 3, 2018
After this brief interlude on the Har-Tru, Bouchard is headed down to South America, to Bogotá, Colombia, for the first time.
That tournament, an International-level WTA event played on red clay, has just one player in the top 20 (Daria Kasatkina) and just two more in the top 60 (Magda Linette and Tatjana Maria). A last-minute wild card to a top player is unlikely because of the International-level criteria.
But after that, it’s all up in the air.
Bouchard’s statement about wanting to grind it out at smaller tournaments “where no one’s there” is made more out of necessity than of choice.
The Canadian is nearly 50 spots out of the main draws at the two big Premier clay-court events in May, Madrid and Rome. And of Tuesday, she is not even entered in the qualifying, although the deadlines have not yet passed
She would likely get into the Madrid qualifying draw and most likely the one in Rome as well (which has eight fewer spots).
Big points to defend in May
The week of Madrid is a crucial one for Bouchard, wherever she plays.
It was nearly a year ago that she played her best tournament of the season.
Bouchard’s second round match against Maria Sharapova – not unfairly billed as a grudge match, at least on her end – was a gripping encounter. In it, Bouchard ran, and fought, and withstood (figurative) punches. She handed back some of her own, and won. She then defeated a sub-par Angelique Kerber after the world No. 2 retired down 3-6, 0-5 in the third round. She had also beaten Alizé Cornet, a tough out on any surface, in her opener.
Those 215 ranking points are looming in a month. They make up just over a third of her total. And if she doesn’t defend them, or make them up elsewhere, she would drop out of the top 150.
Even if she does – and it would take a lot to do it if she’s playing lower-level tournaments – she still would remain outside the top 100. That’s another, different, kind of pressure.
The “smaller tournament” plan
With our collective attention span being about a day, these days, it’s already been forgotten by many. But a year ago, Bouchard had shifted her strategy towards playing smaller events after losing in the first round in both Indian Wells and Miami.
She went to the smaller WTA event in Monterrey, rather than return to Charleston, and lost in the first round.
And then, in a surprise move, she dropped down to the ITF level and played the $80,000 tournament in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla. (It’s a $60,000 tournament this year).
She was, despite being a wild card, the No. 1 seed.
That was a different kind of pressure, and in the end it wasn’t a solution. Bouchard clearly looked, and felt, like a fish out of water. And the pressure of being a Wimbledon finalist and being expected to win was still another kind of pressure.
After squeaking out victories against players ranked No. 601 and No. 305, Bouchard lost to Victoria Duval, an American ranked No. 896. Duval was returning from a successful fight against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Bouchard then played the smaller WTA tournament in Istanbul, Turkey that runs up against the Premier tournament in Stuttgart. And she won just four games against Jana Cepelova of Slovakia.
More American Har-Tru?
There are a few options for Bouchard this spring.
As of now, she entered (main draw only) Madrid, Rome, and in the smaller tournament in Rabat, Morocco the week of April 30.
She remains a dozen spots out of the main draw in Rabat, as of Tuesday.
Bouchard could pick up the American ITF Har-Tru circuit in Dothan, Alabama the week after Bogotá, then follow through to Charlottesville, Va. and back to Charleston for a series of three $80,000 tournaments that end in early May. (Indian Harbour Beach is the same week as Bogotá).
Same surface, not much travel, similar conditions for three weeks – everything you could ask for in terms of logistics for a player looking to get some momentum.
If she committed to that, though, she would be far better off withdrawing from Bogotá, so as not to change surfaces four times in four weeks. The deadline for Dothan has passed. For Charlottesville, it is Thursday. But getting wild cards into these events is probably not an issue.
And – a bigger conflict looms. In Indian Wells last month, Bouchard said she was very keen on playing Fed Cup in a few weeks, against Ukraine in Montreal.
That takes up the entire week of April 16 after a long flight from South America. And it only guarantees her one match, possibly two.
As Bouchard found out a year ago, those high-end ITF tournaments are extremely competitive. As well, this particular swing features the American players fighting to earn the USTA’s reciprocal wild card into the French Open (won by Amanda Anisimova last year). The fields are strong, and there is a lot at stake.
ITFs on the red clay?
On the heels of those American Har-Tru events come a pair of $100,000 ITFs on red clay in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France (week of May 7) and Trnava, Slovakia (May 14).
These tournaments are even tougher. They feature a host of players who are habitués of that circuit through the year. Many of them are very accomplished on the red clay.
Buzarnescu, Golubic, Jabeur, Kovinic, Maria, Nara, Parmentier, Vickery, Buzarnescu, Dolehide and Dodin are among the those entered.
Nürnberg, Strasbourg … or qualies?
After that, there are small warmup events in Nürnberg, Germany and Strasbourg, France the week before the French Open. At the moment, Nürnberg has the slightly weaker field.
Nürnberg was the site of Bouchard’s only WTA Tour title. It also was the place she suffered a nasty ankle sprain on the practice court a year ago.
It was a stroke of bad luck that held her back more than anyone can truly know; the setback came just as she had finally gathered some momentum in Madrid.
But … Bouchard’s ranking currently sits at No. 111, Five players could pass her this week. And with some protected rankings expected to play Roland Garros, Bouchard likely will be on the bubble in terms of having to play the qualifying, barring rare main-draw wild card awarded to a non-French player.
So, to sum up, there are plenty of places to play, in the six weeks leading up to the French Open.
It will be intriguing, and revealing to see what kind of decisions Bouchard makes about how to attack the spring season – and whether she will have a new coach by her side.
They are fairly crucial decisions, at this stage. You can only hope she gets some wise advice – and listens to it.
(Charleston screen shots from WTATV).