Bouchard: Construction and deconstruction of hubris

In tennis, it is rare that a former champion, especially one in her mid-20s and at the peak of her physical prowess, flies under the radar as the less fancied contender for the title while her opponent, contesting her first grand slam final, becomes the hot favourite.  One would ordinarily assume this to be on account of the extraordinary quality of tennis already displayed by the latter, turning conventional wisdom on its head.  But perhaps in the modern world, perceptions and PR management can be added to the list of possible reasons.  Such is the curious case of Eugenie Bouchard.


Long before Wimbledon 2014 got to the business end, the Bouchard army was steamrolling all opposition in the PR sweepstakes.  We kept hearing of how Queen Genie, as she is referred to, was a champion and future star in waiting.  By the time she got to the quarter finals, she was all but crowned as the new champion.  It was, or so it seemed, only a matter of time before she completed the last remaining formalities.  She duly egged on the media managers with statements like “I feel like I totally belong” and “It’s (greatness, presumably) been years in the making”.  That just about every reasonably successful professional tennis player has worked for years to get to wherever they are, irrespective of their slam count, is another matter.


But as it was, Bouchard was and is an advertiser’s dream come true.  Young, outspoken, eerily confident and, last but most certainly not the least, attractive, she will probably be soon seen endorsing popular sporty footwear brands if she isn’t already.  Since overly talking up a glamorous tennis player without great results on court has at times attracted flak from spectators, Bouchard presented an ideal balance of beauty and talent.  She seriously upped the ante after the semi finals, saying she had expected to win and wasn’t particularly surprised with the result.  Her steely confidence in choosing such bold words without resort to an appearance of modesty must have left more than a few observers awestruck.


And then along came Kvitova.  In less than an hour (but not a minute too soon to beat the rains), she demolished the champion in waiting in straight sets to win her second Wimbledon title.  But it wasn’t just the fact that she won in straight sets.  At 3-2 in the opening set, as Kvitova closed out a long and well fought rally with an incredible backhand crosscourt passing shot, John McEnroe declared on air that if Kvitova kept playing shots like this, it would be a long day or rather a short day for Bouchard.  McEnroe declared during the 2003 men’s final that Federer reminded one of somebody who had won the title 7 times.  McEnroe often calls it perfectly and this time too, he was spot on.  The second set was even more one sided with Kvitova gifting a grand bagel to Bouchard.  Defeat seemed to leave Bouchard shell shocked, flustered and upset rather than just disappointed or sad.  But, really, should she have been shocked?


In their only previous meeting at Toronto last year, Kvitova had prevailed in straight sets.  Kvitova serves and returns powerfully, moves well for somebody of her height and hits sweetly timed classical groundstrokes rather than bludgeoning the ball. Lately, she has begun to hit behind the opponent so she is developing tactical nous as well.  Bouchard’s groundstrokes are on average nearly 20 mph slower than Kvitova’s. Her second serve sat up to be treated to punishing Kvitova returns.  Her movements on grass were less than perfectly balanced and she relies heavily on hitting the ball early rather than timing.  Should Bouchard really have been so surprised by the defeat?


It is not so much the defeat itself as the thought that perhaps Bouchard looked underdone, underprepared for an event as important as a Wimbledon final.  I don’t know if she actually did say it or not, but at least in the excerpt of the press conference after the semi final uploaded on the Wimbledon website, Bouchard did not acknowledge Kvitova as a former champion. She only mentioned vaguely that she knew of her weapons on grass. In her head, she seemed to be the favourite. As a contrast, Federer, the 7 time Wimbledon champion, mentioned Raonic’s serve as something he would have to counter, by taking care of his own serve games.  He did exactly that, clinically, on Friday.  It is interesting to note the difference in approach between one of the greatest players in the history of the game and one who is, as yet, an upstart.


This is not to say that self belief is a bad thing, as Bouchard fans have argued is being insinuated by critics.  No player can get to the top of the heap without self belief.  But there is a thin line separating self belief from hubris.  Where does believing that you can make it end and believing you already have arrived begin?  The problem, again, wasn’t that Bouchard lost.  The problem was she simply tried to play her usual game when it seemed evident to most serious watchers of the game that that wouldn’t work if Kvitova hit her stride.  Kvitova was quick off the blocks.  Bouchard should have tried something else, maybe use a lot of slices to keep the ball low and slow down the game.  Kvitova thrives on pace and rhythm.  Bouchard didn’t do anything to take that away from her.  Surely someone as certain of success as she appeared to be would have also prepared a strategy that would attain it and execute said strategy well on court?  Instead, Bouchard looked shaken even halfway through the first set, as if this wasn’t part of the plan.


After the defeat, Bouchard said in the presentation that she didn’t know if she deserved all the love she got from the audience.  Later in the press conference, she said the defeat was a good experience for her and she would learn a lot from it.  Without reading too much between the lines, it was perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that she had been a bit too sure of success without yet possessing the weapons she needed….to beat a former champion and one who at her best can blow away many players on tour.  She beat Venus Williams in a tough match in the run up to the final, in case the Bouchard army noticed.  Against Sharapova in the French Open semi final earlier this year, Bouchard had the consolation of walking away a gallant loser.  Kvitova didn’t even afford her such pyrrhic victories.  It was complete and utter demolition in full public view.


The Bouchard episode is a good demonstration of the highs and lows of hubris.  People, especially those working in the media, enjoy a quote-worthy star.  And they also enjoy taking her down when she cannot live up to her own boast.  In 1999, Martina Hingis, having earlier claimed Steffi Graf was over the hill, walked off in bitter tears from the French Open final, not only facing defeat but finding the crowd firmly against her.  When she broke through in 1997, Hingis was hailed as a precocious talent and a genius in waiting.  In the end, though she did win plenty of slams, she fell some distance short of meriting comparison with Graf, Evert, Navratilova or the Williams sisters.  It is perhaps fortunate that Bouchard’s bubble burst before, rather than after, she had won a major.  She should hopefully return a bit older and a lot wiser and fulfill her tryst with destiny at a future date.  Tennis is richer for the presence of talents like her and a shrewder Bouchard will only make the game more exciting, more interesting to watch.




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