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RIO DE JANEIRO – It was a match, had Genie Bouchard managed to pull it off, that could well have allowed her to ride the crest of the Olympic wave for the rest of the summer.
But the 22-year-old from Montreal ran into an Angelique Kerber playing at a much higher level than the last time they met, this spring in Rome. The 6-4, 6-2 defeat means Bouchard is out of the singles although she’s still alive in doubles with Gaby Dabrowski, and may squeeze into the mixed doubles draw when it’s made tomorrow.
“I started well, obviously, but I was having trouble finishing the points. When I came up to the net I had to do better than that. She’s a great defensive player, got a lot of balls back and she passed me way too many times. That’s unacceptable,” said Bouchard, who got off to a 4-1 start in the first set.
“I thought she played very solid today. When I was attacking her she came back and almost hit the ball even harder. She was really good counter-punching today, maybe, than the previous time I played her. Sometimes that happens; she’s the second-best player in the world right now.”
Playing in broad daylight on the vast tract of land that is the centre court at the Olympic tennis venue was a major culture shock from Bouchard’s two earlier Olympic matches, played on smaller side courts under the lights.
On Saturday for her first-round win over Sloane Stephens, the small court was packed and Bouchard could feel the support all around her. This time, the more sparsely filled stadium was a difficult place to draw energy from that support.
The amount of space both behind the court and on the sides, with the stadium being a bowl, was all to Kerber’s advantage. So was the surface, which is extremely slow – a lot slower than what the players will be dealing with when they return to their regularly scheduled programming next week in Cincinnati and then, at the US Open in New York.
There was also some wind. Add all of that together, and Bouchard found herself in a situation where it was extremely difficult to hit winners against a premium defensive player who had all the time and space to run everything down, and equally difficult to really go for the pinpoint accuracy on the lines that was needed to get the ball past her without running into unforced errors.
“She’s played amazing this year and I feel like it’s her combination of counter punching and turning it into offence. So many times I thought I was in control and suddenly, before I knew it, I was on defence and she was controlling the points. She does that very well,” Bouchard said. “I think the slow court gave her a slight advantage. She likes time, have these long points, run down lots of balls and then take time to control me. I don’t know; it was just tough out there today.”
In the end, Bouchard didn’t play poorly. She was outplayed by a player who hasn’t appeared 100 per cent healthy in the weeks since Wimbledon but who is the reigning Australian Open champion and Wimbledon finalist. If Bouchard was able to get her on the red clay last spring, she faced a bigger challenge Monday. “I went on the court, I gave everything I had and that’s all I can do. She played at a very high level today.”
The Canadian kept her cool, and she kept fighting. And when it was done, she didn't walk off before making some fans happy.
The key number for Bouchard came on Kerber's notoriously suspect second serve. Kerber not only won two-thirds of the points with it, she also served at a 73 per cent first-serve rate which avoided that danger zone altogether. She also had more winners than Bouchard - 24 to 22.
The Canadian went a woeful 7-for-16 at net, something she admitted wasn't close to good enough. Her lack of instinct and confidence in the forecourt showed up in this one; she rarely even got past the service line on her approach shots. And in failing to make a choice on what to cover, she basically left the entire court open for Kerber, who mostly passed her crosscourt – the easiest passing shot to make because the net is lower where the ball crosses.
Bouchard said she and Dabrowski were almost disappointed they didn’t get to face Venus and Serena Williams in their second-round doubles match, which will take place Tuesday.
“We wanted to play the Williams sisters just because it would be such an incredible experience to play against Venus and Serena at the same time in doubles. But the Czechs (Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova) played better so it might be a tougher match. I’ll ask Gaby what I need to do,” Bouchard said, laughing.
A possible advantage might be that Safarova is in a weakened state. She caught some sort of stomach bug in Montreal just before leaving for Rio, and felt poorly during her first matches (including the win over the Williams') but better Monday, even though she retired against Kirsten Flipkens after losing the first set 6-2.
And there is still that little matter of the elusive selfie with legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps to attend to.
“Not yet. I just saw him that one time and I was too shy,” Bouchard said, laughing again. “Got to take my opportunities in life. What’s wrong with me?”