By Chris Black
LAS VEGAS—Genie Bouchard is curled up in the passenger side of a rented SUV, heading toward the Las Vegas Strip. Her mom, Julie Leclair, is driving. Bouchard, dressed in grey track pants, a Space Jam hoodie and a Nike toque pulled low to the brow, has been spending a good portion of her off-season here in the desert.
For fans who have questions about her commitment level to the sport of tennis, this may reinforce some negative stereotypes about her work ethic.
But the trunk of the SUV has only two primary contents: a tennis bag and laundry detergent. Bouchard has come out West to work. She has sought legendary trainer Gil Reyes, who was at Andre Agassi’s side during 16 years of top-10 play. And with Bouchard’s 2017 season getting under way, the Canadian has a message for the people she calls her haters: “I don’t care what you guys say anymore.”
“I think at the beginning, when you first enter a world like this, you do want to kind of please everybody and want everyone to love you and be happy,” Bouchard says. “But as time goes on, I’ve realized you can’t please everyone.”
In 2014, after going deep in three Grand Slams, Bouchard peaked at No. 5 in the WTA rankings. After two disappointing seasons, she enters this year’s Australian Open as an unseeded player, ranked just inside the top 50. For some, the shine has worn off one of the tennis world’s brightest young stars. But Bouchard is out to prove that winning a Grand Slam—a dream she’s had since she was a little girl—is still possible.
After a plodding finish to her 2016 season, Bouchard’s critics pounced on her social media accounts. Her posts over the past few months sometimes focused more on extracurricular activities (think beaches and big cities) than tennis, and each comment section invariably became a referendum on her work ethic.
mattpitstick796 remember when you used to be good at tennis and then started posting stuff like this? get ur head back in the game genie cmon
claudescherrer What a dumb woman.. she should try to play tennis instead !!!!
“People can say I’m not spending enough time training and things like that,” Bouchard says. “I’m like, ‘OK, do you work 24 hours a day?’ I train six hours a day and then I go to the movies, but what I will post will be about the movies because—to me—that’s the most interesting part of my day since I play tennis and work out every single day of my life!”
Not everyone sees it that way, leaving Bouchard in the crosshairs as one of the most followed Canadian athletes on social media.
klemmingway I love you @geniebouchard — but there’s too much party and living the good life than hard work ethics. You fooled me by pretending to be a tennis player. You are blessed with a talent, but you are wasting it – and my time.
“I don’t need to try to prove to you that I’m working out. I know what I’m doing every single day, and I don’t need people’s acceptance of what I do,” Bouchard says. “I’ll post whatever I want, and I don’t care what people say.”
Tennis analyst Jesse Levine, former coach of world No. 8 Madison Keys, says the public image of Bouchard couldn’t be further from the truth. “People have no idea how hard she works,” the recently retired ATP pro says. “I know trainers who have worked with her, and they all say she loves to get her ass kicked in the gym.”
Work ethic aside, there are legitimate questions about whether Bouchard can regain her early career form, and those questions don’t just come from social media trolls.
Justin Gimelstob, a retired 11-year pro and now a Tennis Channel analyst, was a hitting partner of Bouchard’s on a few occasions and he was convinced 2016 was going to be Bouchard’s big bounceback year.
“I’ve been shocked, frankly,” Gimelstob says. “She’s talented, she’s hard-working, but something isn’t connecting.”
Gimelstob says one of the most encouraging recent signs from Bouchard was her reunion with coach Thomas Hogstedt, hopefully stopping what had been a revolving door at that position.
“That was a bad sign,” he says of Bouchard working with four coaches over the past two years. “It is disconcerting when you see so much turmoil, chaos, and drama around one of the more controllable parts of your career.”
Bouchard is a professional, but she’s also just 22, someone who’s still learning who she is, with whom she wants to work, and what she wants to be.
“The ascent was meteoric, and the fall was meteoric,” Gimelstob says. “But I just can’t imagine there are 40 women in the world who are better than her.”
Bouchard was once the darling, not just of the tennis world, but of the entire sporting world. The 2014 WTA Newcomer of the Year evolved into—according to one publication—the most marketable athlete in the world in 2015. She was the teenager who had Genie’s Army, who giggled about Justin Bieber and twirled—upon request—during post-match interviews.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bouchard is revealing this rebel attitude in Las Vegas, of all places. While working out in Reyes’s fitness centre, BILT, Bouchard wound up having more than a few conversations with co-owner Agassi, one of the first athletes of the modern era to grapple with image issues:
His advice, she says, carries more weight than most.
“He lived through what I’m going through,” she explains. “To hear it from someone who’s actually experienced it, who really knows the feelings you have on the court and off, and everything to do with your life and the tough road that you’re on… it definitely makes me really listen because he must know what he’s talking about, right?”
Reyes and Bouchard’s primary goal in Vegas was to pack on the pounds. Bouchard was blunt. “I want to get stronger. I want to get bigger. I want to put on muscle,” she says. “I feel like in the past year I haven’t been strong enough on the court.”
But mixed in around the training sessions, Bouchard found time for the usual tourist fare (the city is “so alive,” she says). She walked up and down Vegas Boulevard, ate at Nobu, and went to a couple of Cirque du Soleil shows. She even lived vicariously through other early twentysomethings, strolling through the University of Nevada at Las Vegas campus and bookstore.
Bouchard’s training also led to some impromptu encounters with Steffi Graf, a legend in her own right who is married to Agassi. Bouchard was thrilled to learn Graf recalled hitting with her the last time she was in Las Vegas. “She remembered this chubby 16-year-old back in the day,” Bouchard says. After getting past how surreal it was to walk past tennis’s “super couple” at the breakfast table, Bouchard was able to have some meaningful discussions with Agassi about her on-court game as well. Those conversations could lead to a slight philosophy change in 2017.
Even in her most successful seasons, Bouchard was almost stubborn to a fault when it came to playing aggressively and up in front of the baseline. Agassi, one of the best and most aggressive returners of all-time, told her that position on the court must be earned.
“He was such a great returner, he took the ball early when he needed to … but he was also very physically fit and could withstand longer rallies as well,” Bouchard says.
“That’s actually something we touched upon, about not having to pull the trigger too soon if you don’t need to, and playing maybe more higher percentage and not complete risk on every single shot,” she continues. “I could try to simulate that since we do kind of have similar game styles.”
Levine says that attitude is a sign of maturity. “So many young players these days have the ability to play aggressively,” Levine says, “but when it doesn’t work, they don’t have a Plan B, and they just try to hit through their problems.”
Bouchard is caught off guard by how quickly time has passed since her rookie season in 2013.
“I think you have your facts wrong. There’s no way it can be my fifth year,” she says, laughing. “It’s 2017? Oh my God. Wow. I mean, you might as well call me a veteran now.”
That status raises an interesting question: Where exactly is she on her career arc? Is she still a young prospect navigating through her tennis life’s second act? Or is Bouchard just another example of an athlete peaking early, destined to fade away?
There is reason to be bullish on a potential move back up the rankings, but that has as much to do with other players on tour as it does Bouchard.
The average age of the WTA top 20 is 28 years old. Among those 20 women, only one player—Keys—was born in 1995 or later. Other than Keys and 2016 French Open winner Garbiñe Muguruza, it doesn’t seem as if there’s a deep roster of young talent ready to dominate the women’s game.
Consider recent major winners: Serena Williams is 35 years old and has won just one of the past five Grand Slam events (for her, that qualifies as a slump). Angelique Kerber—the current world No. 1—is approaching 30 years old. No one knows what to expect from Maria Sharapova when she returns from suspension later this year. Ana Ivanovic has recently retired, Petra Kvitová is out for a good portion of the 2017 season, and Victoria Azarenka just had a baby. There seems to be an opportunity for someone else to step into the spotlight.
Can Bouchard take advantage of the opportunity? She reached her first WTA semifinal in 10 months at an Australian Open tune-up event. But, for better or worse, the tennis world has become fixated on the four Majors, and Bouchard hasn’t played in a Round of 16 Grand Slam match since the 2015 Australian Open.
Regardless, the pressure is on this season, in more ways than one. This past June, Forbes pegged Bouchard’s endorsement money for the 12 months prior at US$5.5 million, tied for fourth-highest among all women tennis players. At the time, she was ranked 46th in the world. Late last year however, Canadian tennis journalist Stephanie Myles reported that some of Bouchard’s big contracts become more performance-based this season.
Amidst those stakes, Bouchard insists one of her primary goals this season is to block out “outside voices and outside expectations.” As her career progresses, she also plans to make a point to appreciate experiences like the ones she had in Las Vegas with Agassi and Graf.
“I still pinch myself in moments like these because I still consider myself a normal kid,” Bouchard says. “I’ve forced myself to stop and take a second and realize, ‘Wow, I’m in Rio at the Olympics. Wow, I’m in London at Wimbledon. Wow, I’m in New York City doing events for my sponsors.’ It’s not a normal 22-year-old’s life.”
Bouchard pauses for a moment. “I’m only 22, but I feel older than that,” she says. “I feel like it goes by really fast.”