By Pritha Sarkar
It was “a weird match with a weird ending” but all Eugenie Bouchard cared about was the split-second in which she saw Simona Halep’s lunging service return spinning into the net.
It was the moment that confirmed her 7-6(5) 6-2 victory over the Romanian third seed at Wimbledon on Thursday.
More importantly, it was the moment that had been 15 years in the making as she became the first Canadian – man or woman – to reach a grand slam final.
The fact that she had set a final date with 2011 champion Petra Kvitova in an arena she calls the “Temple of Tennis” should have sparked some joyous celebrations.
But there were no tears, no leaps of joy and no sinking to the knees. She briefly raised her arms, blew some kisses and then strode out with the air of a champion-in-waiting who knew her “job was not done yet”.
“It’s not a surprise for me. I expect good results like this. I totally feel like I belong. But I still have another match so it’s not a full celebration yet,” said the remarkably self-assured 20-year-old.
It was a sentiment shared by Kvitova after she came out on top of a semi-final between two Czechs – and two lefties – by subduing Lucie Safarova 7-6(6) 6-1.
“Still one more to come. I want to be focused on that now,” said the sixth seed whose career has somewhat plateaued since her breakthrough win here three years ago.
Following the heart-pumping and nerve-jangling excitement of the previous 48 hours, when Rafael Nadal and champion Andy Murray departed after being thumped by the ‘generation-next’ of brazen big hitters, Thursday’s two semi-finals seemed rather anti-climactic.
Neither contest scaled the heights of a Wimbledon blockbuster but that mattered little to Kvitova or Bouchard.
What Kvitova cared about was that she was now two sets away from shedding her one-hit wonder tag.
“These three years was really up and down… but I’m definitely ready for a final and I’m going to try the best,” said the 24-year-old, who went from carefree wannabe to angst-ridden champion.
Since that 2011 triumph, very little has changed in Kvitova’s life. One of the few luxuries she has allowed herself is to trade in the Skoda she was driving for a BMW.
Bouchard, in contrast, has been on the fast lane to success since winning the junior title at Wimbledon in 2012.
In only her second year on the professional tour, she reached the semi-finals of the Australian and French Opens and is now a win away from living up her billing as the “next Maria Sharapova”.
“I see it as a compliment to be compared to someone like Sharapova who has won five slams. She’s a great champion,” said Bouchard, who is seeded 13th this year, just like the Russian was when she captured hearts with her 2004 triumph.
“But I’m my own person. I don’t want to be the next someone else. I want to be the first of me.”
Her steely resilience and powerful baseline game means she has more in common with her one-time idol than just long blonde hair and glamorous looks.
Her ability to put “blinders on” when things go awry was clear for all to see during Thursday’s 94-minute tussle which John McEnroe described as being “a weird match with a weird ending”.
Just four games into the contest, proceedings were interrupted by a medical time out taken by Halep to have her left ankle strapped after she stumbled on the grass lunging after a Bouchard winner.
Fears that the injury might force Halep to throw in the towel early proved to be unfounded as the world number three went toe-to-toe with the hard-hitting Bouchard right into the tiebreak.
But when Halep went up 3-2 with a mini-break, confusion reigned around Centre Court. French umpire Kader Nouni suddenly clambered down his chair and ran to the opposite tramlines.
He had spotted that a spectator had fallen ill in the stands and the players were forced to take another timeout as the ailing woman received medical attention before being led away.
Rather than being annoyed by the unscheduled distraction, it sharpened Bouchard’s focus.
“It’s pretty tough to stop in the middle of a tiebreak. It was intense, and then to just kind of not play tennis for three minutes messes up the rhythm. But I took it as a challenge,” she said.
A lucky netcord allowed the Canadian to draw level at 4-4 and she then finished off the set with a brutal drive volley that left Halep swinging her racket in vain.
That appeared to take the wind out of Halep and her bid to become the first Romanian to reach a Wimbledon final since 1970s bad boy Ilie Nastase achieved the feat in ’76 quickly faltered.
She did, however, save three match points on her serve at 5-1 down, one of them with an ace which Bouchard felt was unfair.
“When Simona tossed I heard someone scream in the crowd. I didn’t feel prepared to return. So I put my hand up,” said Bouchard.
“The umpire told me he heard it as well, but he just didn’t see my hand go up. I felt like we should have replayed the point, but he said, no, it was her point.
“I took it as a challenge.”
One game later, it was all over.
“It was a little crazy. I have never ended a match like that. I’m happy I kept my focus…and played well in the last game.”
After such a calm and composed performance, there is only thing that she now craves.
“I’m waiting for a big moment to go nuts,” she said.