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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Genie Bouchard was in her hotel room in Istanbul on Monday when she found out she would be getting a wild card into the main draw at the French Open, which starts on Sept. 27.

"At first, I honestly couldn't believe it," the 26-year-old from Montreal said. "We were asking for a wild card into the qualifying."

But negotiations between the French Tennis Federation and Tennis Canada yielded a direct berth into the 128-player field, and now Bouchard will play in her first Grand Slam since the 2019 U.S. Open.

"I was super surprised, super excited," said Bouchard, who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2014. "It will be my only main draw Slam this year, so I'm looking forward to it ... Tennis Canada offered a couple more things and they wanted to give it to me for the main draw and it all worked out."

Bouchard received a wild card into qualifying last week at the Istanbul Open, an International-level event, and made the most of the free pass by advancing all the way to the championship match where she lost to Patricia Maria Tig in a final-set tiebreak. It was Bouchard's best result since she made the final at the Malaysian Open in 2016.

Bouchard, who reached the quarter-finals in Prague at another International-level event in August, has boosted her ranking all the way up to No. 167 from ​the No. 330 spot she was in when the tour resumed.

A Wimbledon finalist in 2014 when she rocketed to No. 5 in the WTA rankings, Bouchard has struggled to regain her top form in recent years. She finished last season at No. 224. But the pandemic pause may have been a blessing in disguise for Bouchard, who is feeling fitter than ever.

Bouchard spoke to TSN from Istanbul on Tuesday and explained how a new coaching relationship with ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs has helped her and why time away from the tour gave her new perspective.

The following is an edited transcript of the exchange. 

What are you most proud of about your game since the season resumed?

"This past week would be my proudest accomplishment. It was a very condensed tournament, so I had to play seven matches in seven days, so, literally, not one day off. Actually, I also added a doubles match in there, so eight matches in seven days and I don't even remember the last time I did that. So, to be able to recover from the matches and come back and be mentally and physically ready for the next one, if you had told me at the beginning of the week that I had done this, I wouldn't have believed you ... I'm super proud of my resilience and the consistency as well."

What did you focus on during the season pause and how is that helping now?

"The main thing was physical [fitness]. I spent the entire quarantine going into the gym almost every single day. I didn't take any time off and at times it was mentally hard. It's difficult not really having an end goal in sight and you're kind of like, 'What am I even training for? Will we even play tennis this year?' But I’m proud of how I kept pushing through, knowing that it would pay off. And seeing results now, it’s confirmation of that hard work, but it didn't just happen this week. It's been a long time in the making." 

In terms of how you’re feeling right now, does it compare to any time previously in your career? Is this the best you've felt physically?

"When they announced the initial six-week suspension of the tour, I was training the next day. I maybe didn't want to, but my coach was like, 'We're going on court tomorrow, we're going to the gym tomorrow,' and we just continued the routine. In hindsight, it was good to not change it up or go on vacation or something, but to just stay focused. I was still training six days a week and taking one day off and that was it. I do see the results of that. I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life."

What does the rankings jump this week do for your confidence?

"I was feeling good during the pause and I knew I was doing the right things and working hard, but then you still look at your ranking and you're like, 'Okay, well, I'm still here.' So, it’s just that confirmation that you're doing the right things, but the confidence still came earlier. It came before the results. It came from the hours put in on the court and in the gym, working with the right people and knowing you’re doing the right things. I really try to focus more that way and less result-oriented and just trusting if I do the right things, it will come."

Speaking of the 'right people', what has it been like working with Rennae Stubbs?

"I love Rennae. She has great energy. I think the best thing about her is she has that experience not only as a player, but also as a coach and commentator. I just feel like she has a lot of knowledge and can impart that wisdom on me and her being a female is also a plus. There aren't many female tennis coaches in the tennis world and I've had some in the past, like Nathalie Tauziat and sometimes I'm able to be with Steffi [Graf] a bit in Vegas, and I really notice a difference with them because they can be a little more in tune to that emotional side that maybe men don’t necessarily feel or understand and especially with all of them [Stubbs, Graf, Tauziat] being former players and they can say, 'I was literally in this position, feeling how you're feeling and this is how I got out of it.' And to hear stories like that from them is, I feel, so valuable."

Tim Blenkiron from the No Quit Tennis Academy has been with you in Istanbul. What works well between you two?

"I've been working with him since I've been out in Vegas. We've done a lot of practices together, but this was the first time we travelled together, so to be able to work well in tournament situations as well has been really positive for me. He's very easygoing. He’s Australian as well, like Rennae, so I've got a lot of Australians on the team right now. He's laid-back and easy to get along with, which is important, but then when it comes time to get down to business we're really focused. He has such a good vision for me, and we just really agree on how I want to be on the court ... We have the same goals and it's nice when you're aligned like that with someone."

Who will be with you in Paris?

"I'll continue this trip with Tim. We'll fly to Paris tomorrow and just get a head start on training and getting ready over there."

You work with Andre Agassi's former ​trainer, Gil Reyes, in Vegas and spend some time on court with Agassi and Graf. What's it like when you're spending time with those two?

"They're, honestly, the most amazing people. They're so giving. They want to help so much and not just with me, but whoever they spend time with out in Vegas. I'm just so grateful for any amount of time they spend with me and sometimes they're in the gym and we're just talking about some of my past matches or Andre is [sharing] experiences from his career as well and his thoughts on my game and Steffi as well and it's still super surreal. I mean, I'll get texts from her and look at my phone and like do a double take and be like, 'Tim, look who I just got a text from!' So, I don't think that will ever be normal, because they are such complete, absolute legends and I love them and I'm so thankful for all their help. And that's also because of Gil and my great relationship with him. So, the family in Vegas is awesome. I love them so much."

What's life been like since you played in the final on Sunday?

"I pretty much haven't left my hotel room in Istanbul since I played the final on Sunday, but that's by choice. We waited here on Monday to find out about the wild card because I was either going to fly to France or go back to North America. So instead of flying somewhere without knowing, we decided to wait. And then we found out last night. And now to get into France you need a negative COVID test, so we did that test this morning and we have to wait for the result before flying to France. So, hopefully we'll get that tonight and we'll fly to Paris tomorrow. I've played a lot recently, so I just needed to rest so I've just been ordering room service and watching Netflix and Hulu all day long and just been enjoying my two days off."

The French Open is allowing some fans and they're setting up a bubble situation at a couple hotels. What's your sense of what they’re planning?

"I have no idea what to expect. I wasn't at the U.S. Open, so I don't know. Every tournament we've played we've been in a bubble situation. In Istanbul we weren't allowed to eat anywhere, so they just created a special room for us in the hotel with some chefs and we just ate there every single day. It gets tough doing the exact same repetitive thing day after day, but if it's what we have to do now to play then I'm more than happy to do it. I'm sure France will have good-enough regulations for all the players. I hope it works out and I hope it works out with the fans. I don't know how that's going to be, but if we can have some fans I think that's good."

It won't be a normal French Open, because nothing is normal right now, but what do you like about the French Open? Every Grand Slam has its own personality, what stands out about Roland Garros?

"I always love the fact that I can speak French there. It does feel like a home away from home. I think they see French Canadians as kind of like their little cousins and so they always laugh at my accent, I'm hoping in, like, a nice way. I take it in a cute way, but maybe they're straight up laughing at me. I'm not sure. So, I've always felt that extra little love from them. I'm not sure if it’s because of that connection and we’re able to relate a little bit more to each other. So, I'm looking forward to that. I actually haven't spoken French in so long, so I've probably lost it a bit and I'm expecting I'll have to do a couple interviews in French or something, so I need to start practising."

The pandemic pause was an unusually long break for a tennis player. Even for most injuries you wouldn’t be off this long. How did that impact the way you feel about the sport? 

"I do feel like I appreciate it more. I feel like a lot of people are saying that now after the break, but I think it's true. It's cliché, but it's honestly true. When you have something taken away from you, you appreciate it more. Even during this week, as tough as it was physically and mentally day after day, I caught myself in the middle of like a tough third set being like, 'Oh my God, I'm loving this moment right now.' And it's tough. It's not fun like you're at the beach, but it's like this joy in kind of pushing yourself and trying to be the best you can be. I've actually caught myself having these moments of, 'Oh my God, I'm actually enjoying this.' Before I would see it in a negative way like, 'Ugh, it's such a grind. Ugh, the travel. Ugh, I'm in a third set.' Maybe it's also because I'm getting older and I'm just so old now that I'm being mature and having some wisdom, but I do totally appreciate it more and truly enjoy it more."