RIO DE JANEIRO—The tall young dude in the fedora looked over, and he grinned. He was the tall young dude in the fedora, as opposed to the other two dudes in the fedoras.
“The host city supports Genie,” he told a Canadian. Why is that, he was asked. He grinned, as young dudes in fedoras do. “Why do you think?”
Genie Bouchard has lived a short lifetime in her career already, and the leering young dudes are still here. It’s a vaguely creepy side effect of being the It Girl of women’s tennis, for however long. Genie Bouchard was that for part of a year, and then came the free fall, and now, at age 22, the comeback. In this case it was her Olympic debut, a ruthless 6-3, 6-2 win over American Sloane Stephens, ranked 22nd in the world. It was, as these things go, encouraging.
“She was just in the moment,” said coach Sylvain Bruno, “Just the next point, the next ball, that’s what mattered.”
Rio is a funny place to try to build confidence and focus, but maybe it’s the best place. Court 3, after sundown, maybe a couple hundred people, lights that occasionally dimmed as big bugs fluttered about. Bouchard faced two break points in her first service game, and weathered both. She faced one in her second service game, and came up with yet another weapon-like serve in response. Her serve has been a weather vane for her nerves, which have faltered often over the past two years. In Rio, on the first day of the Olympics, it worked fine.
“I’m happy that I was just mentally very focused,” said Bouchard. “It’s not easy. It’s something all athletes around the world strive for every day and … some days I do it better than others. So today I did it well, but I have to push myself every day to do it.
“Some matches I try as hard as I can and it’s just not there as much. Today it was. And I want to be consistent, to do it match after match after match. That’s what the great ones do.”
Great is a long ways up. Stephens was on that track for a while, too; she didn’t derail as spectacularly as Bouchard did, but she’s still a good player, that’s all. No shame in that, unless it’s not what you want. Maybe this was predictable: In her six tournaments since April, Stephens had lost to players ranked No. 77, 136, 102, 95, and 134.
In that time, Bouchard beat seven top-40 players. This makes eight. Bouchard looked faster, looked fit, never offered a crack. When you’ve found trapdoors, you start looking for them; you can start creating them. On this night, Bouchard never gave her doubts a place to land.
“Exactly,” said Bruno. “She showed a lot of strength on every single point, pushing herself on every single ball, and if she can do that she’s at the top of her game. You talk about it, remind her to be in the present, not to focus on anything but the next ball . . . it’s tough. You’ve got to control your mind, because it can wander.
“I’m just happy on many levels, many fronts. From a mental perspective I think she was just exactly what she wants . . . aggressive, but smart, not checking out of the point too fast.”
Bouchard has talked more about how, in her lousy days, she became too nervous to eat, and has had to force herself to do so; she has talked about her confidence, which is as much of a plank to her game as anything, and which still wavers. Becoming a star means distractions and pressure, and for a time Bouchard cracked.
Now she is trying to put herself back together, and that means every point, every game, every set, every match, every day. And unlike Milos Raonic, it means Brazil, and it seems to agree with her. At the opening ceremony Friday she seemed so happy, real joy. Maybe, in what Martin Amis once called the strange obscurity of stardom — the lonely, distracting bubble of high-end tennis — being really happy helps.
“For me, the moment I will remember for the rest of my life is entering that stadium, the hands waving, smiling, just . . . I just had this out-of-body experience knowing that I would remember this forever, and it just made me so proud and happy,” said Bouchard, beaming. “So I’m on a cloud now.”
“She was really into it,” said Bruno. “She grabbed the moment, and she was just blossoming out there. She was just really, really happy.”
At the end of the match, after Bouchard had give Stephens no room for hope, no door to kick open, she shook hands and returned to her chair and, of course, a gaggle of dudes — a bro of dudes? — shouted “MARRY ME” from about 15 feet away. Bouchard, who is used to this sort of thing, laughed it off. Asked about it, she said, “I find it funny, because most of the time it’s guys who are younger than me. So I find it funny. I take it as a compliment.”
Just 22 and she has outgrown her leering fans, if not outrun them. But then, she’ll always be Genie Bouchard, everywhere she goes. Who Genie Bouchard is, though, is up to her.
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