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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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Peer upstaged by young Montrealer at Rogers Cup

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Israeli Shahar Peer lost to Quebec teen phenomenon Eugenie Bouchard. [Vidal Keslassy photo]

For the third consecutive year, Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer lost in the first round of the Rogers Cup to a player ranked below her.

Peer was upset by up-and-coming 18-year-old Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, losing 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 before a partisan crowd favouring Bouchard at Uniprix Stadium. Bouchard was this year’s surprise junior Wimbledon champ.

Given that Bouchard is ranked No. 237 and never played a match against a player ranked as high as Peer (who is ranked No. 56), expectations were high for Peer to win easily.

But Peer wasn’t up to the task, and Bouchard rode the wave of cheers from the Montreal fans to lift her spirits and level of play. Bouchard won the first nine points of the match, taking a 2-0 lead before Peer played a steady game and broke Bouchard twice to take six of the next seven games to win the first set.

From that point on, Bouchard used a more aggressive strategy, coming to the net and beating Peer with well-placed ground strokes. Peer didn’t help herself by netting many unforced errors and serving eight double faults in losing the second set 6-2.

The third set was more of a dogfight with each player holding serve to a 3-3 tie. In game seven, Peer broke Bouchard and appeared headed to victory with a 4-3 lead. Bouchard broke back, but trailed 15-40 in game nine.

Had Peer not committed three unforced errors in that game alone, perhaps the win would have been hers. Bouchard emerged victorious by winning the points that mattered most. At break point in the final game, Peer sailed a forehand long to give Bouchard the match.

“This was a complete meltdown for Shahar. She’s known as a good fighter, but her level of play is not as good as it should have been. I thought she could have been a lot sharper against Bouchard,” said former tennis great Tracy Austin, who commented on the Bouchard-Peer match that was nationally televised on Sportsnet.

To Peer’s credit, she didn’t offer excuses or discredit Bouchard.

“I can’t explain what happened. I let her [Bouchard] back into the match and couldn’t do anything right, and it had nothing to do with the crowd favouring her. It was just one of those days, and I am sorry to disappoint so many of my fans,” the 25-year-old Peer said after the match.

Peer’s performance continues her inconsistency after achieving a career-high ranking of No. 11 in 2011, the highest ever for an Israeli man or woman in tennis.

Following a semifinal finish in Hobart, Tasmania, earlier this year, Peer took a nosedive, not advancing past the first round in major tournaments, including Wimbledon and the Olympics, where she lost to silver medalist Maria Sharapova of Russia 6-2, 6-0.

“I think Shahar can come back to playing tennis at the high standard when she was ranked 11th. She has to believe in herself and get her confidence back to succeed on the tour,” Austin said.

Peer made world headlines in 2009 when she was denied a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates to compete in the Dubai tournament. The ban backfired, not only because the tournament was fined $300,000 and forced to allow Peer to compete in Dubai for the next five years, but because it strengthened her determination to play above expectations.

Peer finished as a semifinalist in the 2010 Dubai tournament, in addition to her quarter-final result in 2011.

“Sports and politics should never mix, and to this day I never forgot the anger when I was banned. But I play better when someone tries to take something from me. I became more determined than ever to do well in tennis,” Peer said.

The ban also created millions of supporters for Peer worldwide who empathized with her plight. She is the most recognizable Israeli athlete in the world due to her travelling to tournaments across the globe.

Peer has won both woman of the year (2009) and athlete of the year honours (2006-2009) in Israel and has used her celebrity status to benefit others when she is honoured by many Jewish and Israeli organizations at tournaments.

Peer received much praise for joining last year’s March of the Living in Poland, leading 10,000 students to both the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, accompanied by her maternal grandmother, Holocaust survivor Yuliana Eckstein.

Eckstein, now 82, lost her parents and brother at Auschwitz.

“She [Eckstein] never told me the horrors until she went with me to the camps. Leading the March of the Living has given me strength and values that makes winning or losing a tennis match not seem that important anymore.”

Sharon Fichman of Toronto, now Canada’ No. 1-ranked doubles player, lost her first round qualifying match at the Rogers Cup. The 21-year-old Fichman, ranked No. 203, is Canada’s best Jewish female tennis player since Vicki Berner of Vancouver was doubles champions of what then called the Canadian Open in 1967.

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