CHARLESTON, S.C. – The conversation between Genie Bouchard and Nick Saviano, a man she has known nearly half her life but who is not, officially, her coach at the moment, had a narrative.
After the Canadian played some desperate, wounded-bird tennis to blow away 35-year-old opponent Lourdes Dominguez Liño of Spain and take the second set of their second-round Volvo Car Open match 6-1, Coach-this-week Saviano had some stern words during an on-court consultation.
They were not the words of a stand-in coach but of a longtime mentor, a father figure unafraid to say what he thought as Bouchard admitted an abdominal injury was getting worse. At first, it bothered her only on serve (and overheads). By this point, it was bothering her on her split-step, her reactions to balls, basically every time she made a quick move.
“I am telling you I don’t think you should continue. I’m afraid you can really hurt yourself. I don’t know, I can’t get inside your body, but I’m telling you I don’t think you should continue,” he said. “I’m afraid of you tearing a stomach muscle. That’s a long time out. For me, based on what you’re telling me, I would pull the plug. As much as I hate to say that, that’s my professional opinion.”
At that point, Bouchard was defiant, almost rolling her eyes, tossing off his words as though he wasn’t being serious.
“I know you’re no baby when it comes to this stuff. I know you hate to pull out of a match,” he said.
Suddenly, the effort at nonchalance gave way to the realization that the abdominal issue Bouchard was struggling with was familiar territory. And that it had had fairly serious consequences on the previous occasions.
“Maybe you can get by this round but do you really think you play the next day?” he continued. “It’s not the finals of a Grand Slam, in which case I’d say play on.”
“No,” agreed Bouchard, who was becoming emotional, knowing the match was done, that a great opportunity in Charleston was wasting away and that the future was uncertain yet again.
To humour her self-admitted stubborn streak, Bouchard gave herself one more game. Well, one game and two points.
And then, the 22-year-old retired from the match, 6-4, 1-6, 1-0, and now has to be in doubt for next weekend’s Fed Cup tie against Slovakia.
“I think it’s almost the same thing as last year. It’s something that I’ve had several times in my career, so that’s why it was very important not to make it worse. and to stop before it got worse,” she said in her press conference less than an hour later, already having regained her composure. “For me, it’s difficult to stop in a match, but I think it was the right thing to do.”
Bouchard retired from matches a few times in the juniors. But in the professional ranks, it had happened only twice: at Eastbourne last June, down 4-6, 0-3 to Belinda Bencic, when she suffered a 1.5 grade abdominal tear. The Canadian played Wimbledon the following week, which she probably shouldn’t have, and lost in the first round in a shocker to Ying-Ying Duan of China.
The second time came in her brief attempt at a comeback in Beijing, China last October, after suffering a concussion in that infamous locker-room incident at the US Open a little more than a month earlier. She felt concussion-like symptoms, and retired because of dizziness.
Bouchard admits now that she pushed too hard after last year’s injury, and only made it worse. That was something she wanted to avoid this time.
The abdominal strain first occurred during her otherwise impressive first-round win here over Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania.
“It was on a specific serve. I remember feeling it. But it wasn’t too bad during the match yesterday. I got cooled down and everything last night, I really realized I’d done something to it,” she said. “I tested it out on practice this morning, and it was there. So I had to tape it before the match, hoping that I could get by with that, but it wasn’t enough once the match started.”
Saviano cut a concerned figure throughout most of this one. Bouchard went off court for a medical timeout at 2-1 in the second set and when she returned, she played fast and furious and went for broke.
At 4-1, she had the trainer come out to add more tape. Saviano left his seat and came all the way over to near where she was sitting, watching over Bouchard concernedly with WTA Tour supervisor Mariana Alves by his side. He was talking directly to his charge, even though his microphone wasn’t on and it probably wasn’t technically allowed. But no one said anything; it’s likely no one would have been able to stop him anyway.
Already planning to move forward and take the net away from Dominguez Liño, who is a great retriever and had the potential to upset Bouchard’s rhythm with her low-bouncing slices and high-bounding topspin shots, she moved forward to the volley even more often, and ran away with the set.
The injury retirement came on the very same day Bouchard was officially confirmed as a nominee on the Canadian Fed Cup team, which will take on Slovakia in Bratislava in 10 days.
Trying to be positive, Bouchard wouldn’t rule it out.
“The fact that it’s only next weekend might help me, but it’s difficult to say right now – it’s only been an hour since I played the match. I have to see in the next few days, but I’ll do everything I can.”