BREAK POINT – Does Canada put too much pressure on its athletes?

The “Burden” of a Country

Examining the rise and fall of Canada’s tennis sweetheart Genie Bouchard & the shifting landscape of Canadian tennis

In a sports context, Canada has long been known as a hockey nation — the likes of Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and so many more having achieved legendary status playing our nation’s prized game.  Whether it’s the image of Paul Henderson’s magical goal in the 1972 Summit Series, or Sidney Crosby’s “GOLDEN GOAL” in the 2010 Winter Olympics on home soil, the majority of Canadians can recall where they were when these special moments took place — Canada has had so many defining hockey moments, so many flag bearers and torch carriers — all adding up to a storied history that Canadian sports fans cherish and continue to share and pass down to subsequent generations (I still remember meeting Paul Henderson when I was a young kid – at the time I had no idea who he was but after my father explained what he did for our country and the game of hockey, I think I may have rudely interrupted him while he tried to order KFC.  I just wanted to say “Thank you and tell him he was awesome”).

While hockey has a rich and long history above the 49th parallel, other sports have long lagged behind in their ability to produce the same level of star power and dominance on the world stage.  Not to say we haven’t produced HALL OF FAME calibre players in other sports, but not nearly to the degree to which we have churned out “I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast” hockey players — the gap is vast.  Canada is climbing rapidly in the basketball scene with many stars, past and present, including two-time MVP Steve “Cyclops” Nash (see below) — Baseball, not too shabby either starting with Ferguson Jenkins, Justin Morneau and Terry Puhl and continuing with Larry Walker, Joey Votto and Russell Martin to name a few — long story short, while hockey remains #1, Canadians have seen legends come and go in other sports and can still find reasons to cheer and get excited about the prospects of athletes in other sports delivering magical moments now and in the future.

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The beauty of all beauties

Focusing now on tennis, Canada has never truly made a mark on the global stage.  Daniel Nestor had a good amount of success, predominantly on the doubles circuit which gets less viewership than the live broadcasting of the legislative assembly.  Milos Raonic has vaulted into relevancy on the mens tour, but many factors have prevented him from ascending to the top, including his battles to stay healthy.  Even when healthy, he has underwhelmed in big matches.  While some may argue that the continued domination of the big four has played a part in Raonic spinning his tires while trying to climb up the rankings, I attribute his stall more to his continued reliance on a one-dimensional game.  Other youngsters, most notably Sasha Zverev, have used much more well-rounded styles of play to make noise and the results have been much more favourable.  Zverev, 20, fresh off his victory at the Rogers Cup, has 5 wins in 2017 (Raonic has 0).  He ended Canadian “wonderboy” Denis Shapovalov’s miracle run in the semi-finals and dispatched some guy named Roger in the finals to cap off an impressive week.  Zverev appears to be the leader of the NEXT-GEN wave of players on the men’s circuit.  However, the Rogers Cup also showcased another promising member of the NEXT-GEN group — Canada’s best chance for tennis titles may in fact reside on the mens circuit…not with Raonic, but rather with Denis Shapovalov.  At only 18, he showed he can hang and hit with the best – evidence of this came in his historic win against Rafael Nadal, a prime-time spectacle that sent the nation into ecstasy.  Unfortunately, with time to reflect on the happenings of the Rogers Cup, negativity has crept into my mind – Shapo showed what he is capable of and nothing would suggest he can’t continue his meteoric rise — nothing, except of course, recent history.

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A memorable Rogers Cup for Denis Shapovalov was highlighted by a three set victory over Rafael Nadal — is he Canada’s next best hope for a major tennis title?

This brings me to Eugenie Bouchard, who captured the country’s hearts with her 2014 Wimbledon Finals appearance.  She burst onto the scene as a fearless hard hitting assassin taking out the likes of Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep.  She wound up falling HARD in the finals against a much more seasoned Petra Kvitova but her run gave Canadian tennis fans a glimpse of her potential.  At 20, many were asking just how high Bouchard could climb on a tour desperately looking for Serena’s heir.

Fast forward three years, the answer now seems quite clear —- about as high as Tyrion Lannister’s DINKlage.

(If you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, just stop reading and go watch the epicness you’re missing out on – YES, I know I’m the bazzillionth person to tell you that and now you’re just not watching it as a gutless form of protest — THERE’S A REASON SO MANY PEOPLE ARE TELLING YOU TO WATCH IT!)

Ok, sorry, I got sidetracked, as usual — back to the tennis.

Following her magical run, Bouchard’s life was flipped upside down and turned inside out.  She had sponsors blowing up her phone to get a piece of her success and many tennis pundits believing she was the next big thing on the women’s tour.  She was Canada’s sweetheart – a beautiful girl from Westmount, QC who was the talk of the tennis world, vaulting up as high as No. 5 in the rankings.  She followed up her Wimbledon run with a 4th round exit at the 2014 US Open, and opened the 2015 season with a quarter-finals birth at the Australian Open — momentum was building.  However, the rise quickly halted and the cliff came — since that QF birth, Bouchard has managed only one other 4th round appearance at a major.  She began making headlines for all the wrong reasons, beginning with the split from long time coach Nick Saviano.  She went through several coaches, all with limited success.  She invited Jimmy Connors to the 2015 US Open which appeared to help her rediscover her Wimbledon form, however she was forced to withdraw in the 4th round with a concussion after she apparently slipped and fell in the shower.  Bouchard and the USTA are still involved in a legal battle over the cause of that injury and while it remains to be seen how that will turn out, the momentum she appeared to regain in her career quickly vanished.  For what it’s worth, I have a theory about that infamous event but I will keep it to myself.  Before you get upset at me for dangling that in front of you, rest easy knowing that my theory is almost certainly not what happened — but for me, it serves as a somewhat plausible and comedic anecdote for the whole incident (and NO, I don’t think concussions are funny so don’t hit me with that BS).

More recently, it has become routine to read, watch, or hear about Genie bowing out in the first round of tournaments, a common result for the 70th ranked player on tour.  She is far more well-known for her Instagram profile and Snapchat stories than she is for contending in tennis tournaments *cough* ANNA KOURNIKOVA *cough*.  I won’t go so far as to say social media is entirely to blame for Bouchard’s fall, but I can’t help but suggest it be considered part of the problem.  Does it not seem that she’s way more interested in posting selfies than she is in improving her tennis game? It certainly seems like she cashed in and checked out following her Wimbledon success.  She’s not the first to do that, and won’t be the last.  Everyone knows one or many players who set the world on fire in a contract year, signed a big long term deal and subsequently mailed it in knowing they already had their money.  For the record, that’s always why I’ve hated long term deals in sports — where is the motivation to perform after you sign an 8-10 year guaranteed contract?

What’s different in Bouchard’s case is there is no guaranteed money.  Sure, she still has various endorsements — Nike, Pinty’s, Coca-Cola, Colgate toothpaste, and Babolat are a few, and those definitely net her a pretty penny.  However, that well will dry up if she continues to play the way she’s playing.  More practice and less cola & chicken bites by the pool perhaps?  Bouchard has always maintained a level of professionalism when discussing her struggles.  Saying the right things, vowing to work harder to improve her game and make Canada proud, she continues to put on a brave face in the wake of disastrous results — until her most recent defeat in Toronto.  Following a vintage first round exit at the Roger’s Cup, she suggested her on-court struggles were partially a result of the pressure put on her by Canada — “Someone else can carry the burden of Canada” were her exact words.  She went on to say that nobody could imagine what days in her shoes were like, the constant pressure associated with choosing which filters to apply to one’s Instagram photos – a daunting task for any mere mortal I guess.  As much as that quote rubbed me the wrong way, the one below was also semi-infuriating:

“I guess I’m relatively young, but I feel old in a way, you know?  I’ve been on tour a bunch of years already and I think it’s important to feel the pressure of time a little bit, to get into action and not just relax and let years go by. That would be the worst thing I could do.  If the media doesn’t put pressure on me that would be nice.”

What’s confusing to me is how Bouchard can criticize the media for putting pressure on her through their coverage, while seemingly forgetting about all they’ve done for her from a marketing and branding standpoint.  Does she not know that without the media, her brand would be nothing? The media has done far more good for Genie’s career than bad, yet she forgets to credit them for the good, and instead crucifies them for their handling of her countless failures on the court.  What other habitual “one-and-done” female tennis player gets consistent media coverage?  Any respectable athlete will tell you the only pressure that matters is the pressure they put on themselves — if that’s not the case, then it would suggest to me that you aren’t committed to being the best, and instead are comfortable with simply making a living playing a sport.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s a nice way to make a living, but be honest about your motivations and expectations.  Don’t feed the media and your fans lie after lie about being committed to winning and being the best when all you’re really interested in doing is staying relevant enough to land sponsorships, grow your social media following, and build your personal brand…and by the way, to achieve those three non-tennis accomplishments, you will require the support of an important vehicle…THE MEDIA! If Genie hopes to grow her brand, she best not cut ties with the media outlets and reporters who’ve given her a platform all these years.  And as far as that heavy burden goes, I think I speak for all of Canada when I say we are fine with you passing it on to more capable hands – to the likes of Denis Shapovalov, a hopefully healthy Milos Raonic, and promising youngster Bianca Andresscu.  A country is not meant to burden its athletes, it’s meant to push them forward and spur them on to heights they otherwise couldn’t reach.  Consider it a wave to ride, not a burden to carry!

Genie, I wish you all the best as you continue “trying” to revive your tennis career but if I’m being honest, I’m not optimistic.  If you ask me, you need a lamp to rub and some out-of-this-world magic if you hope to ascend to relevancy again.

With or without you, Canadian tennis is in good hands.

JS

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