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Bouchard, Raonic make final push to summit at U.S. Open

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada has long been a global ice hockey super power, toasted a Formula One driver's champion and at different times has laid claim to the world's fastest man.

The Maple Leaf has been waved by a Masters champion and produced most valuable players in the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.

But one sporting peak no Canadian has yet to reach is the top of the tennis mountain as a grand slam winner.

Faced with some Everest sized hype, Canadians Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic have set up base camps within sight of that lofty goal and head into the U.S. Open next week prepared to make a final push for the summit.

By reaching the Wimbledon final Bouchard has already climbed higher than any Canadian before her after semi-final appearances at the French and Australian Opens - losing to eventual champions on both occasions - had already marked her as a rising star.

STEADY RISE

Raonic also reached new heights on the lawns of the All-England Club, becoming the first Canadian man to play a grand slam semi-final following a quarter-final run at Roland Garros.

Those results touched off a bout of tennis fever in their hockey mad homeland and installed both as cornerstones around which the next tennis generation will be built.

Raonic's rise has been more steady than spectacular but the big-hitting 23-year-old has already earned the seal of approval from 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer and his coach Stefan Edberg.

Seeded fifth at Flushing Meadows, Raonic is on the verge of crashing the Big Four of grand slam champions Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray and Federer, who have dominated the sport for the past decade.

While grand slam success may await Raonic, nothing less than super stardom has been predicted for the 20-year-old Bouchard, whose combination of skill, beauty and determination has set the tennis world abuzz.

WTA chief Stacey Allaster and world number one Serena Williams are among those who have not only hailed Bouchard as a future grand slam champion but the next face of women's tennis.

"I think Genie is a great player," said Williams. "I think she for sure is the future face of tennis.

"She's already proven being one of the faces of tennis now. Why wait for the future?"

As any athlete who has been to the top will tell you it is the final push to the summit where the real challenge lies.

When you are within sight of the peak, reaching it is as much a matter of will as skill.

On the cusp of fulfilling her promise, Bouchard stumbled, falling 6-3 6-0 by Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon final.

DOWNWARD SLIDE

The young Canadian has been on the slide ever since, devastated after an opening match loss to American qualifier Shelby Rogers at her heavily promoted home tournament in Montreal. That was followed by second round exit in Cincinnati.

While clearly rattled by the lack of form, Bouchard has been able to gather herself and display surprising maturity in dealing with the sudden wave of adversity, taking it all in as part of a steep learning curve.

"I feel like I can rise to the occasion well and raise my level where it counts," said Bouchard. "I feel like I play well in kind of high pressure situations and can really play my best tennis when it counts.

"So maybe that's why I play better at the slams.

"There's ups and downs in tennis and in life.

"I can realize that and it won't always be amazing."

In what has been a quirky pattern, Bouchard lost her opening match in Sydney, her only Australian Open tune-up, but then advanced to the semi-finals of the season's first grand slam.

In the buildup to the French Open she failed to win a match in Madrid and Rome but won a title in Nuernberg and reached the semi-finals in Paris.

An opening match loss in Hertogenbosch, her only grass court event ahead of Wimbledon, was followed by a march into the final at the All-England Club.

"She has the champion gifts," said Allaster. "She has this mental capacity that I see in her the likes of Serena and Venus and Maria (Sharapova).

"She's got good composure. She loves the pressure.

"It starts with this champion-like confidence that on day one she's planning for Sunday. There are only a handful of champions that have that attitude.

"Others are happy they made it to the quarters. She's not."

With the Williams sisters in their 30s and on the downside of their careers and Sharapova turning 28 next year, the search for tennis's new glamour queen is on and a grand slam resume aside, Bouchard ticks all the boxes.

While her athletic gifts are obvious, Bouchard also possess that unique quality that allows her to connect with fans.

Genie's Army, a growing group of fans that follows Bouchard at big events, underscores the Canadian's popularity but the WTA will be counting on her broader appeal to pull in new fans to a sport that struggles to remain relevant beyond the grand slams.

"She's a fan favorite. We're in the business of fans," said Allaster. "Genie understands that.

"What I'm trying to teach our athletes is that they're not just sports women, you are sport entertainers. Genie understands that.

"I don't have to teach that to her. She has that natural instinct that is there. She's embracing the fans and the fans are embracing her."

(Editing by Gene Cherry.)

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