The circumstances and severity of the concussion suffered by Canadian tennis star Genie Bouchard at the US.Open five weeks ago remain, to say the least, mysterious.
Bouchard herself has not spoken publicly since the incident, which occurred around 11 p.m. Sept. 4 in the women’s locker room. All there is to go on is her representatives’ account of the night in question, with no updates or precise medical information.
The US Tennis Association, beyond announcing her original withdrawal from the women’s and mixed doubles events the following day because of a head injury and that they would investigate the incident, has been mum.
But we do know this: the 21-year-old’s star-crossed 2015 season is over. And in the wake of the incident, Bouchard played exactly half of one tennis match during what had once looked to be a potential renaissance on the Asian swing of the WTA Tour’s season, building upon her fourth-round effort in New York.
Concussions in tennis are rare, so there aren’t many comparables with which to gauge her expectations of recovery.
Victoria Azarenka suffered what was termed as a “mild concussion” nearly five years prior to the day, at the 2010 US Open – another freak accident during which she caught her foot in the bottom of her sweatpants as she did footwork drills warming up for a match against Gisela Dulko of Argentina.
She played her match shortly afterward, but collapsed on the court within a half hour and had to be ushered off court in a wheelchair.
And just a month before that, there was British player Sarah Borwell.
Borwell, now retired and running a service called Tennis Smart to help young tennis players get college scholarships, broke into the top 200 in singles but was mainly a doubles player. She and partner Raquel Kops-Jones had just upset the No 1 seeds, multiple Grand Slam champions Rennae Stubbs and Lisa Raymond, when they met Americans Lilia Osterloh and Riza Zalameda in the quarterfinals of the WTA tournament in Stanford, California in late July 2010.
Osterloh put away a high ball at the net – and drilled Borwell right in the head. “Girls aren’t like boys where they go around you. She kind of went at me. I turned, and it hit the back of my skull, bottom left,” Borwell said in an interview with Eh Game.
She kept playing, felt fine, and they won the match.
“As soon as the adrenaline wore off I was a mess. I was feeling sick. I was dizzy, and my face swelled up on the lefthand side,” Borwell said. “They monitored me for the evening, kept checking every hour and the next day, I had an MRI in San Francisco and they saw a bruise on my brain.”
Borwell was told she would probably be fine in a week. She went to San Diego for the next tournament but she still felt groggy, and had to stay in a dark room. She then flew to Montreal for the Rogers Cup, where they underwent what she termed some “basic tests” and was told she could go out and play.
She tried to practise. “I couldn’t walk straight, get my feet straight or anything,” Borwell remembered.
A specialist who dealt with hockey players administered the SAC test. Orwell was asked to count backwards, month by month. She got as far as May. She couldn’t balance on one foot with her eyes closed. Her speech was slurred.
Orwell missed the US Open; she returned to action at the Quebec City tournament in mid-September, about six weeks after the original accident. Then she flew to india to compete in the Commonwealth Games, where she began having panic attacks just being around people and talking to them.
By the 2011 Australian Open (where she teamed up with Canadian Marie-Eve Pelletier), more than five months later, Borwell still was having issues, especially with verbal communication.
“I’ve been hit before and if it hits you on the skull, you’re fine. But right at the base of my skull, it got a bit of the brain,” she said. “When you have balls whizzing at your head … that was kind of the end of my career, to be honest.”
Borwell says it took her about a year to feel 100 per cent again. She continued to play, but she still didn’t feel like herself. “My short-term memory’s still not great. I’m finding it a lot more difficult to remember things, and my speech,” she said.
It may well be that Borwell’s case is far more serious than Bouchard’s. We don’t know; there’s an information abyss that is fairly rare in cases of this nature in sports.
When Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby suffered a major concussion in January 2011 after a pair of on-ice incidents four days apart, it cost him more than a year of his career. Even seven months later, when he trained hard, the symptoms kept returning. There were times when Crosby wondered if his career was over, and he consulted multiple specialists in his quest to get healthy again.
In Azarenka’s case, the recovery was quick.
“When I fell and I got concussion I was racing to the court 15 minutes after, so that’s why I collapsed on the court. So that wasn’t probably a very smart move, but I didn't know what I had at that moment. But other than that, I actually don’t remember,” Azarenka told the media at the US Open after Bouchard had withdrawn. “I think I played my next tournament. I obviously took a week off, but I did all the tests in the hospital, all the tests for the eyes, so I was okay after.”
In fact, Azarenka returned a month later in Tokyo, where she lost in the semifinals. She retired during her first match in Beijing (with an unrelated adductor strain) then the following week, won in Moscow two weeks after that, and played in the WTA Tour Finals to close out her season.
Where does Bouchard fit within those parameters? Again, there’s no way to know.
She spent a week in New York recovering then returned to Montreal, where Eh Game was told she completed the concussion protocols and passed all required tests before flying to her home in Miami about 10 days later, to practise a little before heading to Asia.
In Wuhan, China during what appears to be her first practice, she suffered a recurrence of the concussion symptoms – notably, dizziness. She withdrew from that tournament and went on to Beijing where, after three consecutive days on the practice court with trial coach Thomas Hogstedt, she took the court last Monday for her first-round match against No. 13 seed Andrea Petkovic.
Beyond that, not much more is known – nothing about any further follow-up, given it is now clear at this point that Bouchard is one of the percentage of those suffering a concussion who is taking longer than is typical to recover.
The cone of silence has led to all kinds of speculation about what really did occur in the locker room that night. We’ve heard from tennis fans all across Canada, trying to verify stories they’ve “heard” about what happened. Bouchard was intoxicated. She claimed a concussion to avoid taking an anti-doping test. Most prominently, Bouchard allegedly was “trysting” with mixed-doubles partner Nick Kyrgios in the locker room (they are, we can confirm, just friends).
It’s all, of course, just lurid gossip – not backed up with any facts. The original version of events seems plausible enough – certainly detailed enough not to leave much room for speculation, although short on details on the severity of the injury and her current physical state. An information vacuum will usually be filled with a lot of hot air – especially on the Internet.
Multiple requests to her representatives for any additional information in the weeks since the incident have been met with silence.
The US Tennis Association did investigate, but has not issued any official statement, and won’t comment officially.
There’s a good reason for that; a source tells Eh Game that the organization expects Team Bouchard to institute legal proceedings. Nothing has been filed as of this week; but the source qualified Bouchard’s representative stating the Canadian was alone in the locker room when the accident occurred as a “big ‘if’.” A message to Bouchard's attorney seeking information was not returned.
So not only does Bouchard have her health to focus on, as well as the rebuilding of the currently non-existent team of support staff she has around her to set up a comeback season in 2016, she also may end up in court.
The 2015 season, to put it mildly, has been one to forget – no pun intended.