Eugenie Bouchard lopes across the Palm Springs, Calif., desert in four-inch-high gladiator stilettos, the sun bearing down on her. I’m watching from the sidelines, hoping desperately that FLARE won’t be responsible for spraining the most precious ankles in Canada. Bouchard, the No. 7–ranked female tennis player in the world, doesn’t peep a word about the high, high shoes or the heat, despite having trained for three hours before our shoot. She’s laser-focused on getting the cover shot before the light dies behind the mountains. This intensity, I come to learn, is Bouchard’s baseline.
She’s in Palm Springs for the BNP Paribas Open, before the summer’s three big tournaments: the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. You don’t have to follow tennis to know Bouchard. The Montrealer with the aggressive net game and golden-child glow became a national treasure after a breakout 2014 that included a semi-final finish at the French Open and second place at Wimbledon, where she became the first Canadian—male or female—to reach a Grand Slam final. The near wins shot her up the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, from 144 at the beginning of 2013 into the top 10. Bouchard now has endorsements with Nike and Coca-Cola, and two million social media followers, including pals Drake, Justin Bieber and Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory (one of her favourite shows). She receives love letters on the regular, and a devoted club of mostly university boys, self-dubbed “The Genie Army,” flew across the world to see her play at the Rogers Cup last year. Even Stephen Harper has tweeted his admiration: “You’re an inspiration @geniebouchard & Canada couldn’t be more proud of you.” At just 21 years old, she’s already won more than $4 million in prize money. Her first splurge? A Louis Vuitton Neverfull bag.
Tennis reporters hailed her rise as the Cinderella story of the year, but Bouchard corrects anyone who calls her an overnight sensation. “I’ve always had this inner confidence, this inner belief,” she tells me as we chat before the shoot. “Any successful run I have is never a surprise, because I put in 10 years of hard work.” Bouchard grew up in Montreal’s tony Westmount neighbourhood, on the same street as the Mulroney family. Her father, Michel Bouchard, an investment banker, and her mother, Julie Leclair, have three other kids: 16-year-old William, 20-year-old Charlotte, and Genie’s twin, Beatrice (when people ask about their names, Bouchard jokes that her mom is a closet royalist). Her parents (now separated) put the twins in tennis lessons when they were five. Beatrice retired by six, but Genie became obsessed with the sport. At nine, she travelled to France for a 12-and-under tournament and smoked girls three years her senior. That’s when she knew tennis was it. That’s also when her father started a partnership called Tennis Mania LP to promote his daughter’s career. He promised two investors 10 percent each of Bouchard’s future earnings until their investments were recouped—a deal a Quebec court recently noted was made without Bouchard’s consent, given that she was only nine at the time.
The family moved to Florida for training when Bouchard was 12. Leclair, who joins Bouchard on our photo shoot, along with William, tells me Genie has always been different. Beatrice would come home from school (an all-girls academy called The Study) and watch TV, like a normal kid, but Genie would beeline for her bedroom to finish her math homework, determined to score 100 percent on her tests—which she often did. “I did not have a normal life,” Bouchard says. “I’d be training when my sister would be at birthday parties and sleepovers. I finished high school by correspondence, basically working two full-time jobs. The last years were very, very tough. But I was willing to do that. It’s all about sacrifice.”
The first major payoff came at age 18, when she won the junior Wimbledon title and the media dubbed her the successor to Russian-born champ Maria Sharapova. “I’m tired of it,” sighs Bouchard, referring to the incessantly drawn comparison. “When I was ranked 100 and it was my first year on the tour, it was a compliment,” she says, pausing to consider her next words. “I mean, it’s still a compliment. She’s a great champion, but I’m my own person. I just want to be Genie and no one else.” Bouchard’s irritation is understandable: last August, when Elle Québec put her on the cover, the magazine accidentally ran inset photos of Sharapova, mistaking the two tall blondes.
But anyone who has seen Bouchard play knows her game is all her own. She doesn’t serve light-speed aces like Sabine Lisicki or dominate with Serena-calibre power. She’s four inches shorter than Sharapova, so she doesn’t have the natural reach. Instead, she attacks the net and hits the ball early (i.e., when it’s at the top of its bounce, instead of on the way down), a signature tactic that sets a frenetic pace and keeps her opponents scrambling.
She’s also known for her exceptional poise, which some commentators regard as icy. Jim Parsons, who sat in the family box during Wimbledon last year, tells me there’s plenty of passion beneath her controlled exterior: “I’m impressed by the rarity with which she shows emotion. Yes, I’ve witnessed a thrown racquet or a towel draped over the head, but, by and large, you can drop into any one of her matches and, just looking at her body language, you would never know if she was up or down. It’s an admirable ability to maintain that type of evenness, especially for someone whom I personally know feels so passionately about winning.”
That restraint was on display this past January, when Bouchard slaughtered Serena Williams (a.k.a. the best female tennis player of all time) at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, and showed little more excitement than a smile and a fist pump. “Maybe she needed another coffee,” Bouchard joked about Williams during the post-game interview. Eager to know how she felt in that moment, I ask her what was going through her head as she walloped one of her heroes. “I was focused on my side of the net and getting the ball over,” she laughs.
“I’m very hard on myself. Sometimes too hard on myself,” Bouchard says later. “When I lost in the Wimbledon finals, I was so sad, I cried. I had the runner-up trophy! It’s still a great accomplishment, but I was so mad. Everyone told me, ‘Genie, you had a great two weeks. Come on.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but I didn’t win the title. I don’t deserve any of this.’ My goal is to always win the title.” Such ferocious perfectionism is essential for a great athlete, but fans are starting to see it can also be explosive. During practice the day before she faced Sharapova in the French Open last June, she argued with her coach of eight years, Nick Saviano, shouting, “So, basically, I’m not allowed to tell you my opinion?” and hitting a ball into a nearby food court. And in the month after we meet, she loses early in both the BNP Paribas Open and the Family Circle Cup, where she breaks her racquet against the court, clearly angry with herself. Sports reporters speculate that the pressure of last year’s success may have rattled her going into the new season. If this is the case, she’d be forgiven.
Bouchard’s life in 2015 is a nonstop negotiation of travel, training, competing and fame. She lives between far-flung hotel rooms and Los Angeles, where her new coach, Sam Sumyk, is based. (Saviano and Bouchard split last year.) She travels with a mini entourage that includes Sumyk, a fitness coach, a physiotherapist and sometimes siblings. During the week I meet her, she’ll pose for our cover; work out and practise for up to six hours a day, which involves running in sand, taking ice baths and heaving medicine balls; sit for interviews with a dozen-plus sports reporters; compete in the first round of the tournament; and squeeze in the Desert Smash charity event, in which she plays doubles with Justin Bieber against Kevin Hart and Access Hollywood host Billy Bush while comedian Will Ferrell heckles her from the umpire’s chair: “Hey, Genie, what’s your ranking? Seven? After that shot, it’s gonna be 17.”
Right now, Bouchard relishes the off-court opportunities, especially those related to fashion. Last year, she signed with IMG Models and posed for FLARE and Vogue. Her mantra for everyday dressing is “Stay young,” because she knows she won’t be able to pull off miniskirts forever. Her athleisure ensembles include Rag & Bone jeans; slouchy, Nike swoosh–emblazoned Ts (she dons one that says “FEAR LESS” when I meet her at the Paribas Open press day); teched-out long-sleeved tops balanced by short shorts; and a camo-print onesie fit for Rihanna.
It’s Bouchard’s on-court style, however, that turned her into a lightning rod at the Australian Open this past January, in an incident now known as Twirlgate. During a post-match interview, an Australian sports reporter asked Bouchard to give the stadium “a twirl, and tell us about your outfit” to show off her bright melon separates with perfectly clashing chartreuse visor, sports bra and wristband. Bouchard complied with an embarrassed smile and immediately buried her face in her hands. The Internet’s legion of feminists, including tennis legend Billie Jean King, deemed the request sexist. She’d just smoked her opponent, they argued, so he should be asking about her game, not her outfit.
This perspective, which divides fashion as a frivolous pursuit, apart from skill and talent, has gained traction in the age of viral feminism. But Bouchard’s attitude is in line with champions like Suzanne Lenglen, the French star who won 31 titles from 1914 to 1926 and was dubbed “La Divine” by the press for both her skill and on-court dressing. Or even with Sharapova and the Williams sisters, all of whom have designed clothing lines and are unabashed about mixing sport and fashion. “I didn’t think it was sexist at all,” Bouchard tells me. “It was maybe a bit odd, but I’m a girl and I do care about what I look like, and I do care about my outfit. We are females, and we can play the sport and be tough on the court but have a girly side and care about fashion and all these things. I think it’s great that we can be more than just tennis players.”
The controversy is one of several in the decades-long debate about sexism in tennis. Women’s games are shorter, maxing out at three sets instead of the men’s five. And until both King and Venus Williams fought for equal prize money, women received a fraction of the reward men did: Wimbledon and the French Open only moved to equal pay in 2007. Owing to the women that came before, Bouchard and her generation have inherited a more woman-friendly sport, but there’s also more pressure than ever placed on female players to leverage their appearance for personal branding.
Not a match goes by without a commentator remarking on Bouchard’s leggy five-foot-10 frame, toothpaste-commercial smile or overall gorgeousness. During my visit to Palm Springs, I watched her play in the Desert Smash, and the announcer noted her exceptional looks no fewer than five times, at one point calling her a supermodel. Ever since Anna Kournikova, 2000’s No. 8–ranked player, with modelesque looks, posed for Maxim and became the one of the most Googled women that year, the archetype of the blonde tennis bombshell with more fanboys than titles has either tempted or taunted pretty young phenoms. Bouchard isn’t averse to a sexy selfie of her ripped leg muscles or a tasteful beach shot hashtagged #selfiequeen, but you’re unlikely to see her on the cover of a men’s magazine—she and her team fiercely guard her squeaky-clean image. “One time I did this shoot in England,” says Bouchard, “and I had strawberries in my hand. I was wearing a white dress, and then the photographer was like, ‘Take a bite out of the strawberry.’ I didn’t even think about it and I did it, and my agent was like, ‘No. Delete that. That’s not going anywhere.’”
After following Bouchard around for a grinding press day, during which several reporters ask her about Bieber (when she was 19, she admitted to having a crush on him after an on-court reporter randomly asked her to name her dream date), I understand why she’s so careful. I also realize I know very little of what she’s like away from all the scrutiny. When we finally sit down in the tournament’s bustling media room for our second chat, I’m burningly curious, and Bouchard is relieved to talk about anything but Bieber and her backhand. Details rattle out of her easily, and I remember that this champion is also a 21-year-old figuring out who she is and will be off the court.
For breakfast, she eats Greek yogurt with fruit, oatmeal with almonds and an egg white omelette. She has zero hobbies, because when would she cultivate them? But she does play board games with her highly competitive siblings and goes to the mall with her friends (she brings a bodyguard on girls’ nights out in Montreal because she’s often recognized). She prefers men’s body wash to women’s because she’s a tomboy. She’s a terrible cook but loves to bake, but that’s tricky now that she lives in hotel rooms, which are frequently messy until she can’t take it anymore and obsessively cleans up. One day, she’d love to meet Oprah, whom she calls “the most successful, richest woman on the planet.” She’s learning that perfectionism can be a strength and a fault. She thinks about life after tennis.
Two weeks prior our meeting, she and Beatrice celebrated their 21st birthday in Los Angeles at SUR (a.k.a. Sexy Unique Restaurant), which is featured in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. “I don’t like getting older,” she groans. “I already feel old. Last year, when I got out of my teens into 20, it was a huge deal for me. I was freaking out about it.” These may sound like the words of a precocious young adult, but Bouchard lives in tennis years; retirement looms at 30. When that time comes, she might become an air traffic controller, because, as she puts it, “it’s super high-stress, and I can deal with high-pressure situations. I think it would be super intense and exciting, so I’d study anything to get into that. Maybe when I’m 30, I’ll be that old person in university walking around making friends with 20-year-olds.” Until then, it’s ball over net. Ball over net. Ball over net.
Hair: Luke Chamberlain, Show Beauty, Forward Artists.
Makeup: Carola Gonzalez, Neutrogena, Forward Artists.
Producer: Brooke Ludi.
Assistant fashion editor: Jillian Vieira.
Editor: Briony Smith.
Shot on location at Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, California.
Special thanks to Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
Correction: the original piece misstated that Bouchard’s parents divorced when she was 12 when, in fact, they are currently separated. It also stated that she travels with a massage therapist, which is incorrect. We regret these errors and have adjusted the text accordingly.