Marie Bouzkova: former tennis sweetheart weathers villain era at US Open

August 27, 2023

Once lauded for her sportsmanship, the former junior champion is still dealing with social media fallout from a Roland Garros doubles match where she was accused of instigating the default of opponent Miyu Kato

Marie Bouzkova: former tennis sweetheart weathers villain era at US Open

Marie Bouzkova would like to apologize.

“My Spanish is not perfect,” she confesses at the Western & Southern Open, “so I’ll say something that’s funny because of how I’ve messed it up.”

Fluent in Czech and English, Bouzkova mainly speaks Spanish with best friend and doubles partner Sara Sorribes Tormo.

“She’s always laughing, and we even have this list of all the words I’ve confused!”

Neither could have guessed their inside joke would not only go viral, but also cement the duo as social media’s Villains of the Day — taken as proof that they both instigated and delighted in the default of opponents Miyu Kato and Aldila Sutjiadi at Roland Garros in June.

The mantle has proven particularly hard to shake for the former junior US Open champion and 2019 Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award winner, not merely one of the friendliest athletes in tennis, but ostensibly the closest thing it has to Strawberry Shortcake.

“I would say there are still emotional days even now where you’ll share something and so many people will post hate about that incident,” she admits after snapping Omnium Banque Nationale champ Jessica Pegula’s six-match winning streak in Cincinnati. “It’s still pretty hard for me because I’ve never been in such a situation where I feel like I’m the bad person.”

The situation was thoroughly litigated at the time, but as a refresher: doubles specialists Kato and Sutjiadi were down a set but up a break on Bouzkova and Sorribes Tormo, who, by the former’s own admission, largely play doubles for fun.

Before the start of the second set’s fifth game, Kato struck a one-handed backhand without looking, striking a ball girl on the fly. Initially only given a warning by Alexandre Juge, Bouzkova and Sorribes Tormo were heard pointing out that the ball girl was crying — and possibly bleeding — before referee Remy Azemar was called out to Court 14.

As Azemar ultimately issued Kato a default, cameras caught Bouzkova and Sorribes Tormo’s conversación, which triggered a social media firestorm that burns to this day.

Sorribes Tormo, who issued a short statement at Roland Garros, has limited who can interact with her Instagram. But Bouzkova’s is littered with incendiary remarks, both critical and menacing in the belief that she who could have easily been voted Least Likely To Get Cancelled has taken to manually deleting comments.

“Worst player in women’s tennis,” reads one from last month. “What you did will go down in history forever. No matter how much you smile, people all over the world know your lies.”

Another, under a video of Bouzkova holding a bouquet of flowers in her native Prague: “It is good that you are at home so that you can go home to watch the tournament from your TV, you will never be number 1 again.”

“It’s something I don’t wish on anyone,” says the 25-year-old, whose cherubic smile belies unshakeable conviction. “It’s hard for us athletes. We are exposed on social media and it’s so easy to misinterpret when something goes viral, and that’s something we don’t have much influence on.

“Since that moment, I’ve been a little more distant from social media because that’s just a war you can’t win. On social media, there’s always going to be a person getting bullied.”

If she could not have predicted the ongoing response from fans, Bouzkova was entirely unprepared for blowback from her peers. The Professional Tennis Players Association, typically quick to opine on the sport’s current events, leapt to Kato’s defense and cast aspersions on the so-called “external influences” that led to her default—seeming to rubberstamp the pervasive narrative that she and Sorribes Tormo had caused the debacle.

“I felt like the statement wasn’t helpful,” said Bouzkova, who sought immediate clarification from a member of the PTPA’s board. “They didn’t mean [me and Sara]. They meant to suggest that if an older boy had been hit by that ball, he wouldn’t have cried; that’s what they were trying to convey.”

“No one released a statement with regard to us and the reaction we’ve experienced. We went to the referee after the match and he told us that the match couldn’t have ended any other way, which is hard for a lot of people to accept, and he told us that if anyone has any questions, they can talk to him. But what tennis fan can go directly to the referee of Roland Garros? He’s not on Instagram.”

Bouzkova claims the PTPA offered to post an updated statement, but the organization has appeared to move on—and the No. 31 has stopped waiting for vindication.

“It’s very easy to say now that I shouldn’t have said anything or laughed, even for a second, even though our laughing had nothing to do with them getting defaulted. You can never prepare for being in such a situation, but it’s really easy for someone to be on their phones commenting, ‘Why did you behave like this?’ Ultimately, what she did was clear and went against the rules.”

Already in the midst of an “unstable” season, Bouzkova, not from spite or righteous indignation, has somehow weathered the sea of snake emojis to play some of her best tennis this summer.

She reunited with Sorribes Tormo to reach the Wimbledon semifinals in doubles. In singles, she dropped a second-set bagel on Pegula to make the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, assuring herself a US Open seed.

“It was difficult for me to find something to grab onto, something that could have helped me reach a new level,” she explains, feeling out of rhythm until the grass-court season. “I just kept trying to restart every week where I could get some wins going.”

Bouzkova has not spoken to Kato since Paris, having not had more than a superficial relationship before the incident and unsure what to say now. Sorry though she may be for how the match ended, she remains unconvinced that her own supposed crime, attempting to help a crying child, was one worthy of punishment.

“I would never have wished for them to get defaulted, but it’s what happened,” she shrugs, still smiling. “That’s life.”

Neither villain nor victim, the uncancellable Marie Bouzkova next heads to New York, in search of something like redemption. –

Marie Bouzkova: former tennis sweetheart weathers villain era at US Open