Exploring the Extensive Journey of Maria Sharapova and Genie Bouchard

PARIS – First things first: Maria Sharapova is not Genie Bouchard’s idol.

She is not the reason she started playing tennis.

She’s not specifically the reason Bouchard went from adidas to Nike a few years ago.

But, although Sharapova doesn’t remember this moment, the two go waaaaaay back.

It’s incredible to think that on Thursday, some 12 years after this photo was taken, these two – now far closer in height – will meet on Court Philippe Chatrier in the French Open semifinals.

There’s a great story behind the photo, which was taken by Bouchard’s father, Mike, on March 29, 2002, at Crandon Park in Miami, home of the Sony Open (which was then called the NASDAQ 100 Open).

Sharapova wasn’t Sharapova then; she was about to turn 15 and had made her WTA Tour-level debut a few weeks prior at Indian Wells, where she received a wild card. She won a round, then lost to Monica Seles 6-0, 6-2.

She wasn’t playing in the big girls’ tournament, but in something called the Target Cup, an invitational for top junior girls. The four seeds were Gisela Dulko, Bethanie Mattek (now Mattek-Sands), Ashley Harkleroad and Sharapova. Sharapova won it.

Little 8-year-old Genie was on vacation with her family during spring break. Even back then, Sharapova had already received major hype as a future star. As Mike Bouchard tells it, it took a little doing just to get through Sharapova’s already huge entourage to get her to pose with a cute 8-year-old girl.

So, some things haven’t changed all that much.

Now, the two are practically peers, separated only by Sharapova’s multiple Grand Slam titles and weeks as the No. 1-ranked player. A couple of little things.

“Well, first, I mean, you know, we’re not friends, so there is that. Yeah, of course as a child I looked up to her and I remember watching her in the finals of Wimbledon (in 2004) and, you know, thought what she was doing was so cool and I wanted to do the same thing.” Bouchard said. “We’re in the semis of a Grand Slam, so I’m going to respect her but not put her too high on a pedestal and really just battle. That’s what it’s going to be.”

As for Sharapova, well, little Genie – not nearly as blonde then as she is now – didn’t stick in her memory bank.

“My first memory? Probably when she was playing the juniors. I don’t know how many years that was ago. I think when she received a wildcard into the tournament in Canada, whether it was Toronto or Montreal. That was probably the first time,” Sharapova said. “I hadn’t seen so much of her on TV I think until maybe last year, beginning of last year, and especially when I was getting ready to play her in Miami last year.”

Sharapova didn’t actually directly answer a question about the similarities between herself and Bouchard – notably the Canadian’s fighting attitude and ambition. She kept it very generic, and included Bouchard in a talented group with Garbiñe Muguruza, also just 20, whom Sharapova defeated 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 Tuesday at the same time Bouchard was winning her match against Suárez Navarro.

“Yeah, I think the younger generation is ambitious. That’s why they are in these stages of the tournament. I mean, my opponent today has played – the level that she’s played this tournament was extremely high, as you saw the majority of the match today,” Sharapova said. “Someone like Eugenie who has been up and coming for a couple of years, I think this is the year where she’s really broken through, especially at the Grand Slams, playing at a high level.”

It’s good stuff. Sharapova doesn’t even call Bouchard “Genie”, as most do.

The two spent a little quality time together in January 2013 in Australia, doing a photo shoot for Nike that resulted in these awfully awkward-looking, heavily Photoshopped photos that magically gave Sharapova a bustline she can only claim in her dreams.

Seriously. If there are two women in tennis who don’t need Photoshopping, it’s probably these two.

During a break in the shoot, however, they appeared a little more chummy.

The two really do have so much in common, though. Their mental fortitude – a work in (great) progress for Bouchard, a long-established quality with Sharapova – may supercede their physical ability as the quality that most sets them apart from the WTA rank and file. Then there’s the tall, blonde thing, of course. And the glamour-girl image neither has really sought in any comprehensive way, but one neither appears to mind too much.

And, of course, there is their attitude about the other women on Tour and, so to speak, “office friendships.”

Bouchard: “I don’t think the tennis tour is the place to have friends. For me it’s all competition. And, you know, I think it’s important to just remember that we’re going to play against each other in matches. It’s not like we’re teammates. To me, it’s kind of more competitive.”

Sharapova: “I treat my career and my work as a very serious profession, and I know that what has got me my success is the fact that I’m a big competitor and that I don’t want to give anyone a chance. I was never here from Day One to make friendships. This is a battlefield for me, and I want to win.”

Big difference: Sharapova’s grunt is world-infamous; Bouchard is generally quiet as a tennis crowd that’s just been told “Quiet, please.”

There’s some disparity in the story about how Bouchard came to wear Sharapova’s Nike line of clothing.

Sharapova: “I remember she asked Nike if she could wear my collection, which is an honor, and of course I agreed. I had followed her in the juniors a bit, and I followed her career. I thought that she’d be a great player one day, and a few years later here she is in the final and still wearing my collection. So it’s fun.”

Yet, according to this story, it was Nike that went to Sharapova to ask her which of the young up-and-comers she would choose to wear her line, and she chose Bouchard.

A little poetic license there, it appears.

Little girls in messy pony tails and little denim shorts grow up, and become glamour girls with sky’s-the-limit potential. And a photo like this is visual evidence of so many things.

Of time passing. Of how there’s always a next wave, and how you never know; that cute little girl taking a selfie with Bouchard here at the French Open might be the one she meets in a Grand Slam semifinal eight years down the line.

On the day that photo was taken, as it happens, Jennifer Capriati turned 26. She was the No. 1 player in the world. A few days later, she would reach the final in Miami, losing to 20-year-old Serena Williams.

Two years later, Capriati was basically out of the game. And a 17-year-old Sharapova won Wimbledon. And Genie Bouchard was 10 years old.

Sharapova and Bouchard have met on court twice, in Miami last year (how appropriate that would be the first place they faced each other) with Sharapova winning going away, 6-2, 6-0.

Bouchard was a little awed on that occasion, understandably so. Exactly a year ago, the two met again in the second round here in Paris. That one was a little more competitive – 6-2, 6-4 to Sharapova in Bouchard’s Roland Garros main-draw debut.

But that was before … this season, when Bouchard has seemed awed by almost nothing. There may be fewer smiles this time around. And a much closer match.

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