In a land where raquettes de neige (snowshoes) are more popular than raquets (tennis), a young Canadian with classic California surfer girl looks is turning heads on the court.
Montreal’s Genie B. is the wonder Down Under.
Though she finally lost yesterday to the experienced and lethal fourth-ranked Li Na of China in the semi-final of the Australian Open, the teenager from Montreal’s leafy Westmount borough has already made tennis history for her country.
It’s odd that Bouchard, who turns 20 next month, should be setting the tennis world on fire in a sport played mostly in temperate if not sweltering conditions at a time when Canada is pumping up its cold-weather champions in the lead-up to the Olympics.
In the past two weeks, for example, news reports of the announcement of various ski teams going to Sochi (including Montreal’s three Dufour-Lapointe sisters in freestyle) were interspersed with Genie Bouchard’s latest triumph as she advanced up the ranks in Melbourne.
She’s the first Canadian — male or female — to make it to the final four of the Australian Open and the second Canadian ever to play the semis in any of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The last was “Darling” Carling Bassett, who lost to Chris Everett in the 1984 U.S. Open.
That Canada historically has been a minor to insignificant presence on the international tennis scene should come as no surprise. This is a country where outdoor tennis can be played without fear of frostbite or snow squalls only about five months of the year.
Until recent years, young players with demonstrable talent needed to be bankrolled by family and sponsors to be able to move to places like Florida to train and then travel to tournaments to get experience in competition. The results were decidedly mixed on the international level.
In 2007, Tennis Canada, since 1890 the governing body of the sport, decided it was time for Canada to get on the same court, so to speak, as the rest of the competitive tennis world and create a national training center.
Funded largely by the profits of the hugely successful Rogers Cup tournaments that alternate men’s and women’s competitions in Montreal and Toronto, the first center set up shop in Montreal. Junior centers have been added since in Toronto and Vancouver.
Seven years later, the proof of the effectiveness of the program is there to behold in the recent play of its two most illustrious alumnae: Bouchard, and on the men’s side Milos Raonic, currently ranked No. 11 in the world. Last year Raonic cracked the top 10, the first Canadian to ever do so.
With her performance so far at the Australian Open Bouchard will likely add another Canadian milestone to her young career, the highest ranking ever for a Canadian woman.
Ever since she burst on the scene in 2012, winning the Wimbledon juniors, Bouchard has been one to watch. The Women’s Tennis Association named her the Newcomer of the Year last year, putting her in the company of the likes of the Williams sisters, Sharapova and Hingis.
Bouchard was also named Canadian female athlete of the year — beating out a snowboarder and a speedskater. On the male side, Raonic earned the same honor, making it the first time tennis players have topped both the male and female categories.
There are some who might say Bouchard has had an easy ride so far in her Aussie adventure, being seeded in a Slam for the first time and facing weaker opponents in the early rounds.
She beat 14th-ranked Ana Ivanovic in the quarters only after the Serb had a cranked out a win over Serena Williams in a grueling duel. Then again, Bouchard beat Ivanovic in the second round of Wimbledon last summer.
Regardless, for a sport that craves stars with compelling stories, and particularly in a country with tennis envy, Genie Bouchard, with her youthful feistiness and almost goofy charm, seems to have arrived at center court at the right time.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.