As the dust settles on Fed Cup, the Eugenie Bouchard opinion train rolls on

Eh Game
New coach Sumyk will be earning his money the next few months, using all of his experience to help Bouchard turn things around. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)
New coach Sumyk will be earning his money the next few months, using all of his experience to help Bouchard turn things around. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)

If Canada's Genie Bouchard enjoys a certain level of fame in Canada, it appears to be nothing near what top-10 rival Simona Halep experiences in her native Romania.

The fans and media greet her at the airport when she returns home from a tennis trip. And when she leaves, they're there to see her off. (Unfortunately for her, that means she can no longer really show up in a ballcap and pyjamas for an overnight flight, but that's the price of fame).

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So after the Romanian Fed Cup team, which didn't include Halep this time, defeated Canada over the weekend and pushed the country into World Group I for the first time, the world No. 3 was asked about it – and about the Bouchard non-handshake.

Here's some video of that, in Romanian.

The poster of the video has a brief translation in the information box, and after checking with some native Romanian speakers, it seems clear that by "education", Halep doesn't mean formal schooling, rather upbringing (it means the same thing in French).

"It depends on the person's education. I would never do that but it's maybe just how she was raised and we have to accept this attitude."

Halep is close to Alexandra Dulgheru, the "victim" of the non-handshake and the conquerer of Bouchard last Satuday. She also said she thought the Romanian's mock non-handshake retort was pretty funny.

She wasn't accusatory or judgmental about it; not her way. And she's wise enough not to add any fuel to the fire with a rival she'll be battling for years. She was asked; she answered, after first not wanting to comment.

Meanwhile, Radio-Canada actually went out and interviewed a sports psychologist. They turned to the French Federation's sports shrink, Makis Chamalidis, for some insight as to what Bouchard may be going through.

(Diehard tennis fans will find it amusing that the French Federation has a dedicated man for that job. Google "tennis" and "French brain" and you will find the common theory behind why French players, talented as they may be, never seem to be able to win the big ones).

At any rate, here's what Chamalidis said.

"The toughest part of a career is not to break trough to the top level. That’s already extremely difficult, but the most difficult is to back it up, to anchor one’s place and to become one of the greats.

After that, it’s perfect normal that there are moments when you question yourself, moments of doubt. When you get to those moments, as is the case with Genie Bouchard, where there have been a lot of changes in the staff, in the people who travel with her, you have to ask yourself questions.

First of all, on the level of desire, is it still intact? I think it is.

We know on tour a weariness can set in, mental wear, being in the same cocoon and always being with the same people, being in the planes, hotels, tennis clubs. Maybe at a certain point you want something else.

But Genie is on the rise, she wants to go further, and maybe she’s also telling herself that to go higher, it’s like getting to the top of the mountain. Oxygen is rare, it gets tougher and you have to be a bit better equipped. 

Then you ask the question about the environment, the entourage. Is it in place? Are they competent people? There shouldn’t be too many people around; in tennis there’s a phenomenon that at a certain point, when there are too many people around, you tend to listen to the last person to speak. At that moment, you can get pretty mixed up.

The third thing is accepting your status, that you are now the hunted, and that you can’t please everyone. And that sometimes, you’re so exposed that there can be a few faux pas. That’s completely normal.

If you become more than a tennis player, because you’re associated with an image, represent brands, the sex-symbol side, you have to take on all that. It’s important that the people around her help her stay herself, help her to keep her head on her shoulders, and help her to accept that status.

Let’s not forget that players of that calibre have strong personalities. They need to express themselves, they need space, they need to do things their own way. It’s that independence, that freedom, that they have to find once again to be able to express themselves on the court."

Bouchard's performances in the press conferences were at the opposite extreme to her "I like talking to you guys" attitude of months ago (not that you can blame her for being tired of talking after defeats; it can't be easy but, as she has often said, "it's part of the job").

It should be noted that she was very professional in coming in, and answering every question.

There was the lack of enthusiasm after her teammate Françoise Abanda's monumental win over Irina-Camela Begu.

There was her evident disdain for the expression "sophomore slump" (it was not, as some media outlets have stated, an expression "she herself has termed"). Just look at how her face morphs from a slight smile, to ...

And there was the answer to the question about what she would say to "the people out there" who think every win is expected and every loss is a catastrophe (repeating a thought Bouchard herself did express).

Dulgheru touched upon the pressures in her press conference after beating Bouchard Saturday. The Romanian has been around, and has faced a lot of top-10 players in her career. She knows whereof she speaks, and from the sound of it she believes Bouchard can turn it around at any moment.

Bouchard was a little more comfortable in the one-on-one TV interviews granted to the Fed Cup broadcast rights holders. Perhaps the more controlled environment, a perceived "friendlier" audience, made it a little less tense even though the interviewer here was highly critical of her in February, when she opted not to play the tie against the Czechs in Quebec City. 

Here she was with the French broadcaster, TVA Sports.

The TVA interviewer asked Bouchard about the obvious amount of weight she has lost since Australia. It's noticeable on television, and even more evident in person. Bouchard didn't answer the question, but said physically she was fine.

"When I'm mentally concentrated on the court, I feel very good physically. But when I know I'm not playing well, I don't feel good on the court, I feel slow and I don't feel as strong as usual. It's more mental than physical," she said.

About the possibility of consulting a sports psychologist, she said, "No, I don't have one at the moment. I talk to my coach about those types of things. But I'll see; I can always use a little help."

It definitely has to be easier to speak to one person rather than with 25 people looking at you – even if Bouchard has to be used to it by now. But it's risky; the total reach of all the people in the press conference room is significantly higher than that of one interview in one media outlet. And many came away from some of the comments shaking their heads.

Bouchard channels the towel work of the immortal Vera Zvonareva during a changeover Sunday. It didn't seem to help. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)
Bouchard channels the towel work of the immortal Vera Zvonareva during a changeover Sunday. It didn't seem to help. (Stephanie Myles/opencourt.ca)

Bouchard is likely so caught up in her own travails at the moment - who wouldn't be? - she may not even be thinking about the effects her words, actions and tone might have.

Her Fed Cup captain, Sylvain Bruneau – who is in as awkward position as there is because without Bouchard, his team can't compete at the top level and that affects his job security – said he believed.

"She's having trouble, that's obvious. I think it can happen to any athlete. She's going through a  tough period, she's lacking confidence, and it's reflected in her play. She will rebuild her confidence slowly, and will see the Eugenie of the best days eventually," Bruneau said. "I feel she's really tense, as if she has a big weight on her shoulders. It wasn't easy in these conditions. But I think she was pretty courageous to come and play, knowing she wasn't in her best form, changing surfaces, with a preparation of only a few days on the hard court. She came, and she deserves credit."

I think she's young, she's had such an incredible year last year. I think it's part of her growing up as a player, the experience, understanding a few things. I think she will come back stronger from it. How long it will take, I don't know. But I'm sure she'll do the right things."

Immediate plans are to train and prepare for the big WTA tournament in Madrid, which begins in less than two weeks. It doesn't appear any kind of a mental break is in the offing; just work, and more work until, as she put it, "something clicks." 

We'll see then what the short-term results of the work and any soul-searching she does might be.  It's a top-tier event; last year in Madrid, ranked No. 18, Bouchard faced No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in the first round – a tough draw for both, but Radwanska won in straight sets.

Unlike many of the Premier events, Madrid is a full 64-player draw; no byes for the seeds in the first round. One look at last year's draw, and you can see the top-quality players many of the seeds had to face right out of the chute (some didn't make it; some barely made it). So you know Bouchard's new challenge will begin from the very first day.

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