Two weeks after calling Maria Sharapova a “cheater” who should be banned from tennis for life, Genie Bouchard doled out her own punishment to her former, fallen idol, defeating Sharapova 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in a fortuitous and dramatic second-round meeting at the Madrid Open.
The expected fireworks were strictly limited to the play – anyone hoping for the off-court comments to spill over into any sort of mid-match antics would have been sorely disappointed, except for the fact that the match had more twists and turns than Sharapova’s suspension drama. Bouchard won the first set, was outclassed in the second and appeared to be heading for the inevitable defeat when she went down 1-2, 0-40 on her serve in the third set. She battled back to win the game and then, after three straight breaks starting at 3-3, the Canadian saved a break point at 5-4 and held serve to win the two-hour, 51-minute marathon in Spain.
Bouchard, who grew up rooting for Sharapova, said in April that she’d lost respect for the Russian after her drug ban and declared her ability to return to tournaments via wild cards unfair to other players. The comments, which were the harshest of the many anti-Sharapova sentiments on tour, set up a match that had the anticipation of a Grand Slam final, despite being a Monday meeting at a second-tier tournament that was played immediately after a Mikhail Kukushkin match.
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Officially it was a matchup between the No. 60 and No. 262 players in the world but the rankings belied the talent and stakes. Bouchard, a former Wimbledon finalist, has plummeted to No. 60 in the world and entered the tournament without a tour win since January’s Australian Open. Two years ago, she’d been ranked No. 6. Sharapova, of course, is a five-time Grand Slam champion who just finished a 15-month suspension for taking the drug meldonium, a medication that had only been added to the banned list weeks before.
Her comeback has been controversial due to those wild cards, an argument that ignored two simple facts: Sharapova is still one of the best players in the world and that tournaments exist to make money. If anyone else had been playing Genie Bouchard on a Monday night in Madrid, it’s safe to say the match would have barely registered with tennis Twitter, let alone earn worldwide attention. She deserves what people will give her.
Rising to the occasion, Bouchard played her best match in months though both players struggled, the latter blowing multiple opportunities to blow open, or stay in, the third set. On one of the biggest points of the evening, the Russian had an easy, open backhand to even the match at 5-5 in the decider. She pushed it wide. Whether she was too amped up (the grunts started at a high decibel and only got louder from there), too nervous or had too little muscle memory – who knows. Bouchard won the next three points, sealing the match with a forehand, cross-court winner.
Sharapova will lament the missed opportunities and perhaps her strategy too; she went for winners early in rallies which, against Bouchard, is a little like a baseball player going up hacking against a pitcher who can’t throw strikes.
For those hoping for drama of the non-tennis variety, even the handshake, usually the moment where built-up friction tends to play out, was anticlimactic – which isn’t to say it was without some perceived tension. Sharapova walked to the net and appeared to say “well played,” while Bouchard shot her an icy glare, said nothing and held her stare for a split-second longer.
In the end though, it was barely confrontational. (Bouchard, with her one career title, waited until she was in the safety of the interview room before throwing shade.) There was no need for it to be anything more. Maria Sharapova and Genie Bouchard had spent the previous three hours playing out their beef. The scoreboard said more than any handshake ever could.