NEW YORK — Frail, walking gingerly, head tucked into a hoodie, eyes shielded behind sunglasses to keep out the painful light, bewildered.
The look of concussion.
Mother and sister and other members of the Eugenie Bouchard retinue protected their girl as she stepped unsteadily towards her appointment with destiny: A last-ditch medical evaluation on the player’s fitness to continue at the U.S. Open.
But it was evident, even before Bouchard formally pulled the plug on her Sunday afternoon Round of 16 match, that there would be no more tennis on this weekend, perhaps no more tennis for quite a while to come.
Bouchard’s season might end here, on the brink of redemption.
She was anxious to continue, turned to each of her supporters and the medical experts for just a shred of encouragement. Wanted to take a turn on the treadmill to test her body and her brain but was dissuaded. Conceded, finally, to the inevitable: Done, down and out in Flushing Meadows.
Somebody has to wear this and it’s not Bouchard.
Tennis isn’t hockey or football, where head injuries are all too common. This is a generally controlled environment without bodies slamming each other into the blackout dimension.
Yet there was a blackout, as Bouchard described it to her team — in the pitch-dark training room where she slipped on a slick floor late Friday night, banging her head and her elbow heavily.
A training room with the lights turned off.
A wet floor.
No trainers present.
Shut off the lights and everybody go home, apparently. That lapse in attention — carelessness — has cost the 21-year-old Canadian everything: singles, doubles, mixed doubles, a big whack of prize money ($213,575 if into the quarter-finals next) and unrealized ambitions. Because Bouchard’s half of the draw was wide open, via high seeds knocked off early and injury retirement.
The stars had aligned for her and then they too faded to black.
There is a matter of liability in this mess, if not in a strictly legal context — and one hopes the Bouchard family doesn’t pursue that route because it’s a complication her blossoming career really doesn’t need — then certainly in a moral respect. But the Bouchards have been litigious in the past. Two years ago, her father Michel, an investment banker in Montreal, lost a four-year battle with the Canada Revenue Agency over an attempt to claim development-related expenses as a tax deduction, arguing those expenses (via a limited partnership he’d co-established for promising young players) had contributed to bringing his daughter to the verge of stardom.
Bouchard played two matches on Friday — winning her third-round singles event and the mixed doubles with Australian partner Nick Kyrgios. She was stiff and sore from all that tennis but otherwise in an exuberant mood. Before facing the media, Bouchard showered and told one of the attendants — possibly a trainer, it’s unclear — that she would be back immediately after the press conference for an ice bath. She was in the interview room at 10:30 p.m. and out at 10:59, according to the transcript log.
Assuming Bouchard went directly to the cold tub, there’s no explanation for why the area was unstaffed by a WTA trainer — that’s the common practice — and shuttered for the night.
Bouchard related it thusly to a close associate who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “This is all regurgitating what Genie told us. She told the trainer that she’s going to go do press and will want to do an ice bath. I think it was about 11:05 she came back into the locker room. In order to get to the ice baths, you have to go through the locker room and then you have to go through a training room. The training room was dark and the lights were turned off and everyone had left.
“So she walked through the training room, found her way back in to the ice baths and I think they had just cleaned all the floors . . . the floors were just being washed or whatever. She fell backwards and hit her elbow and on to the back of her head.”
Another source alleged that a carpeting runner which is usually laid through the training room had been removed.
It was only later, after leaving the Open site in one of the VIP vehicles which transport players, that Bouchard’s mother became alarmed by her daughter’s condition. A call was placed to a tournament doctor who advised them to go to emergency. Bouchard was seen at Mount Sinai Hospital, diagnosed with a concussion but not, it seems, kept overnight.
And it was a very uncomfortable night as the typical concussion symptoms took hold: sensitivity to light and noise, even voices around her; a migraine headache that still clung to Bouchard on Sunday; disorientation.
To be clear: This is the narrative coming from Bouchard. The United States Tennis Association, as of Sunday night, had not yet provided a timeline or made a statement, other than a one-line dispatch confirming Bouchard’s withdrawal.
The Westmount, Que., native reported on Saturday but withdrew from her two scheduled events on a doctor’s advice. The hope was she would have recovered sufficiently to play singles on Sunday against Italy’s Roberta Vinci. That hope was crushed shortly after her consultation with doctors Sunday afternoon. Unlike professional team sports, where a doctor suspecting concussion can order an athlete to withdraw, the final decision in tennis rests with the player. (Though the tournament referee and Grand Slam supervisor can override a decision to continue if it’s determined the player is not fit to be on the court, resulting in a default.)
Reluctantly, Bouchard bowed to the wishes of her small group, most especially her adamant mother. “She kept saying please, I want to play,” said the aforementioned source. “She was devastated. But it was the right decision.”
It wasn’t just the head; there was all-over pain emanating from the neck and elbow.
“It’s tremendously unfortunate,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told Canadian reporters last night. “We’re all big fans of Genie’s.”
The question was posed: Does the USTA bear some responsibility in this unfortunate matter?
“I can’t answer that until I have more information. It’s a fair question.”
Widmaier wouldn’t go near the issue of legal culpability. “I certainly can’t comment on that.”
Far as anyone could remember, there has only been one previous instance of a player suffering concussion at this Grand Slam. That was Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, who collapsed on court here in 2010 and was removed in a wheelchair. Prior to the match she’d tripped on the bottom of her sweatpants during an off-court warm-up, tripped and hit her head on the ground.
It is too early to speculate on what this regrettable incident has cost Bouchard — how long she will be off the women’s tour while recovering, or if her many endorsement obligations will be compromised. She did not speak to reporters or issue a statement Sunday.
Her health is of paramount importance, obviously. Concussion severity is difficult to assess and recovery diagnosis notoriously imprecise.
But Bouchard should have been playing under the bright lights of Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday evening — not recoiling from the glare.