'Genie's Army' marches to semis
MELBOURNE, Australia -- If there was any question as to the youthfulness of Australian Open semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard, it was revealed with a blush, a giggle and her answer to a fan inquiry in an on-court TV interview Tuesday.
"If you could date anyone in the world, who would it be?" Bouchard was asked.
"Justin Bieber," the 19-year-old Canadian blurted out to a smattering of groans and laughter at Rod Laver Arena.
Setting up one half of a women's final four that was certainly not anticipated and may not have been one anyone wanted, it is enormously compelling nonetheless as Bouchard, the highest-ranked teenager in the world at No. 31, will face 31-year-old Li Na, a two-time Australian Open finalist and 2011 French Open champion.
Playing in her first Australian Open after failing to get through qualifying here last year, Bouchard defeated No. 14 seed Ana Ivanovic -- who had upset top seed Serena Williams in the fourth round Sunday -- 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, while No. 4 seed Li cruised past No. 29 Flavia Pennetta 6-2, 6-2.
But no, Bouchard said as calmly as she played, there is no "pinch me" component as she advances to her first semifinal in her fourth Grand Slam appearance, three rounds further than she has ever advanced in a major.
"No, it's something I've been doing since I was 5 years old and working my whole life for and sacrificing a lot of things for," she said. "So it's not exactly a surprise. I always expect myself to do well.
"I'm just happy to have gone through this step [and] I'm not done. I have a match on Thursday. I'm just looking forward to that."
Li, whose match was the first of the day, was asked about the possibility of playing Ivanovic -- a former world No. 1, the 2008 French Open champion and '08 Australian Open runner-up -- and not Bouchard.
Li also was asked how she knew Pennetta was one day older than her, something she had mentioned in her on-court interview.
"I only focus [on] who is older than me," Li cracked, "because not too many players on the tour [are] older than me."
And not many players are younger than Bouchard, though she did not exactly spring from nowhere, having defeated three top-15 players in 2013: No. 10 Jelena Jankovic (Tokyo), No. 13 Sloane Stephens (Tokyo), and Ivanovic (second round of Wimbledon).
So composed was Bouchard, the 2012 junior Wimbledon champion, that she continually raised the level of her game after dropping the first set, not allowing a break point against her in the final set after Ivanovic took her to break point 12 times in the first two sets, converting five.
"You can't teach that, you're born with it," said Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst who once was considered one of the toughest-minded players in the game. "The way she held herself together, the way she played in the clutch, nothing fazed her and that's a gift she has."
Bouchard broke Ivanovic's serve twice in the final set -- in the fourth and final games. And she won 83 percent of her first serves in the third, compared to 60 percent by Ivanovic.
"She's young girl. I think she has very bright future in front of her," Ivanovic said. "She's [a] very aggressive player. It's sometimes very hard to read her game. There are no real patterns like with other players you have. She's a great mover. She came out really aggressive in the third set."
Ivanovic, who called for a trainer after the second set to deal with an undisclosed injury she said affected her left leg, admitted to a letdown after beating Australian Sam Stosur, the No. 17 seed, in a hard-fought third-round match, then Williams two days ago.
"It's very hard, because when I came into the tournament, I saw my draw [and] it was quite tough. I had to battle through my matches," Ivanovic said. "Also, I had a few very emotional wins, so today I really felt I was a little bit flat. …
"Obviously, I'm very disappointed to lose in this manner. Even though I didn't play my best today, I felt I still had chances. I didn't quite use them well, wasn't aggressive enough, had way too many errors. But it's something to learn from and move on."
Bouchard, meanwhile, is gaining more fans by the minute here, a small army of Australian (males) who call themselves "Genie's Army" following her from her first match on and after each victory giving her (in no particular order) a stuffed koala bear, kangaroo, kookaburra and, on Tuesday, a wombat.
With her victory Tuesday, Bouchard became the first Canadian to reach an Australian Open semifinal and the first to make any Grand Slam semi since Carling Bassett (now Bassett-Seguso) played in the 1984 US Open.
But Bouchard has not so much as crossed paths with Bassett-Seguso, much less spoken to her, and, she admitted, Bassett-Seguso is not exactly a household name in a country that makes no secret of its most popular sport.
"I can barely skate," she said. "It's really bad. …
"[Tennis] is definitely not the most popular sport there. [But] I think it's growing. I think it's getting better. I'm just trying to do the best I can for myself [and] for the country as well. …
"Hopefully they'll care a little bit more about tennis now."
Nick Saviano, the Florida-based coach who has worked with Sloane Stephens, coaches Laura Robson and has been with Bouchard since she was 12, said that aside from Bouchard's stellar mental prowess she has a characteristic that should keep her from freezing in the semifinals.
"She loves being on a big stage and that's something you can't teach," he told Pam Shriver on the ESPN telecast. "I told Genie after two or three matches, 'I always knew you could be a world-class player, but in my heart, I think you can win some Grand Slam titles.'"
To do that, she will first have to get past Li, one of the most talented players on the women's tour. Advancing to her sixth Grand Slam semifinal and fourth here in the past five years, Li was barely challenged, surrendering just one break point to Pennetta.
"Today I think she was perfect in everything." Pennetta said. "I mean, I didn't have a lot of chances at all."
Li reached the Australian Open final in 2011, losing to Kim Clijsters in three sets, and again last year, losing to Victoria Azarenka after twisting her ankle twice, the second time causing her to fall, hit her head and briefly black out.
"I wish I could [take] one more step this year. [Like] not falling down on the court anymore," Li said.
If there are any battle scars for Li in this tournament, they came in a three-set, third-round victory over No. 26 seed Lucie Safarova, in which she fought off a match point in the second set.
In the other half of the draw, Azarenka will face No. 5 seed Aggie Radwanska in one quarterfinal Wednesday, while No. 11 seed Simona Halep will play No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova.
But not once, Li said, has she allowed herself to peek ahead and feel confident about a draw in which there is no Williams and no Maria Sharapova (the No. 3 seed also was knocked out in the fourth round, losing to Cibulkova).
"When I think about that," Li said, "I always lose the next day."
Li and Bouchard have played just once, two years ago in Montreal, with Li beating the just-turned-18-year-old 6-4, 6-4 on the hard court.
"I think the older players are excited to see a new group of players," Bouchard said when asked if there is a "generation gap" in women's tennis.
"But for us young ones, it's still tough because they are still playing well. Serena is still dominating at however old she is. It's still tough for us. But I think it makes it really interesting. We've seen it in this tournament, there have been some upsets. I think players can still lose on any given day and it makes it extremely interesting."