MELBOURNE, Australia – There was plenty of drama for Genie Bouchard in 2015, notably the concussion she suffered at the US Open that essentially scuttled her season.
But in one sense, as she kicks off her 2016 Grand Slam campaign at the Australian Open Monday against Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic, she’s way ahead of the game.
This year, unlike a year ago, she comes into the season with a coach.
After the Canadian tennis star parted ways with long-time mentor Nick Saviano in Nov. 2014 – his initiative, it appears, not hers, despite all of their success together in her breakout season – she spent the off-season variously auditioning potential replacements.
Bouchard practiced with a local hitting partner down in Florida and ultimately began the season with Diego Ayala, a coach she knew from her early years at Saviano’s academy but a coach, it seemed, she wasn’t prepared to actually call a coach.
When the Australian swing was done, so was Ayala.
It wasn’t a solid base with which to begin the important follow-up season, and it may have been one of the myriad reasons the season went off the rails.
So many of the players, especially on the women’s side, need an intense, full and consistent off-season to establish a base on which to build their year.
In February, Bouchard ended up taking on a coach she didn’t know in Frenchman Sam Sumyk. It put both in a situation where they had to try to gel quickly, even as the walls were closing around her. That it didn’t work was no one’s fault, really; nor was it a big surprise. And after the first-round loss to Ying-Ying Duan of China at Wimbledon, it was over. Sumyk is now coaching top Spanish player Garbiñe Muguruza.
Now, with the equally experienced and well-credentialed Thomas Hogstedt on board, Bouchard at least had time during the off-season to form a bond and figure out if there was chemistry, to align their respective expectations and to work on getting her tennis back to where it was.
“We practiced a little bit and tried to play in Beijing, which obviously didn’t work (Bouchard suffered a reoccurrence of the concussion symptoms). But the plan was always, as soon as I was healthy, we would start practicing again,” Bouchard said Sunday after her first and only practice at Melbourne Park following the trip from her previous tournament in Hobart, Tasmania.
“I think he’s a great coach. He’s very energetic and motivating as well – which is fun for me; I haven’t had that in a coach recently,” she added. “He’s very, very positive. He truly believes in me and that helps with my own self-confidence.”
Here's how Bouchard looked, as she hit on Hisense Arena with Frenchman Cyril Saulnier, a former Tour player who is now the director of tennis at a facility in Delray, Beach, Fla.
In Eh Game’s conversations with Hogstedt down in Florida a few weeks ago, the Swede's enthusiasm about getting Bouchard back on track was contagious. He considers their association to be a new start for her, one that turns the page on all the madness that came before.
And he brings experience from other top players he has worked with for varying amounts of time including Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep of Romania, with whom he was consulting during the Australian Open a year ago.
Interestingly, Hogstedt was not one of the prospective coaches contacted by Bouchard in the fall of 2014, when she was in the market, despite the longtime Sharapova association and even though he was theoretically available.
Bouchard said she is free of any post-concussion issues. “In terms of symptoms, I had none; if I had some, I wouldn’t be able to be playing,” she said.
But the aftereffects of what Bouchard calls “the injury”, beyond the negligence lawsuit filed on her behalf against the tournament and the U.S. Tennis Association, did have an effect on her preparation.
“It was a tough offseason, it was shortened for me, it was a different offseason than I’ve had the past couple of years,” Bouchard said. “It was definitely strange. I really tried to play catchup a lot, so I worked really hard trying to do that.”
The results during the two small WTA Tour events in Shenzhen, China and Hobart, Tasmania Bouchard played to start the season were encouraging even if Saturday’s 6-1, 6-2 loss to Alizé Cornet of France in the final was a step back.
She may lose her first-round match in Melbourne as well; despite the ranking differential, Krunic is capable of big wins. Despite her lack of height, can top 115 mph with her serve, and she’s speedy.
A year older than Bouchard, Krunic was on the Serbian team that came to Montreal in Feb. 2014 to play Canada in Fed Cup. By ranking she would have played singles and faced Bouchard; it seems she was carrying an injury, and she never took the court.
So this will be the first career meeting between the two, including the juniors. They practiced together just before the start of the US Open last summer, on Arthur Ashe Stadium court with former Bouchard consultant Jimmy Connors looking on.
Bouchard was ranked No. 49 coming into the season and, thanks to the six matches she won during the first two weeks, has carved that down to No. 37 in the new rankings to be released Monday.
The 21-year-old can’t improve on that in Australia unless she advances further than she did a year ago; that would mean making the semi-finals – hardly a realistic goal.
On the plus side, those results will mitigate the damage a first- or second-round defeat would do to her ranking. In the worst-case scenario, should she lose to Krunic, she likely would still remain in the top 70.