In Tennis, Are Injury Timeouts Just Cheating?

Victoria Azarenka has been accused of using an injury timeout to gain an unfair advantage in her semifinal victory over Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open. What can be done to curb the gamesmanship involved in tennis' medical timeouts?

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GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Belarus's Victoria Azarenka (C) receives attention from officials during a medical timeout in her women's singles semi-final match against Sloane Stephens of the US on the eleventh day of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 24.

“It’s horrendous for our sport and for our game.”

Those were the harsh words that former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe had for tennis‘ injury timeout rules in the wake of Victoria Azarenka’s semifinal victory over American upstart Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open.

After winning the opening set of the match 6-1, Azarenka held a 5-3 lead and was serving for the match. Then, quite simply, she choked. Repeatedly. Five squandered match points later, Stephens had narrowed Azarenka’s lead to 5-4 and was back on serve. That’s when things got shady. Azarenka—currently the top-ranked player in women’s tennis—requested a medical timeout. But how and why did she get hurt? No one knew. Ten minutes later, she was back on the court and Stephens’ momentum was gone. The world No. 1 broke back to win the next game and the match 6-1, 6-4.

(MORE: Say Hello To Sloane Stephens, The U.S. Teen Who Beat Serena Williams)

In the on-court interview after the match ended, Azarenka said: “Well I almost did the choke of the year right now. At 5-3 having so many chance, couldn’t close it out. I’m glad I could just turn it around. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed realizing that I’m one step from the final and nerves got into me for sure.” In subsequent interviews, Azarenka added physical symptoms—first chest pain, then back pain—to the mental ones she had mentioned earlier, but did little to downplay the notion that she had used a bit of gamesmanship to help close out the victory.

The outcry in the tennis world was swift. Though Stephens was reticent to levy accusations at the 2012 Australian Open champ, her coach didn’t pull any punches: “I thought it was very unfair — cheating within the rules,” he said. “It was unsportsmanlike. I don’t think you should be able to leave the court before the opponent serves for 10 minutes for whatever reason. You’d better have something pretty good. I think there’s a gray area in the rule book that shouldn’t be allowed. End of story.”

Accusations of using injury timeouts for gamesmanship—or to just plain cheat—are nothing new in tennis. Countless players, including those on the men’s side, have faced scrutiny for the timing of injury breaks. Even Roger Federer, the game’s consummate professional, faced charges of manipulating a bathroom stoppage in his favor at this very tournament three years ago. The ATP has since amended the rules so that a player can only take his bathroom break prior to his own serve, but resolving the injury timeout issue isn’t quite as simple.

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After the Azarenka-Stephens match, McEnroe suggested that the bathroom rule be applied to injuries, unless the player is in “dire straits,” meaning that for nagging injuries, a player would have to wait for her serve to call the trainer or doctor. Though McEnroe’s idea seems logical in theory, its implementation could prove problematic. Whose job would it be to classify an injury as “immediate” or “nagging” in the middle of a match? Save for all but the most blatant of mid-point injuries, a courtside doctor would require at least a few minutes to examine the player to determine the severity of the injury.

A “serve-only” rule could lead to further injury if players are forced to play through long games with injuries that are becoming more arduous with each passing point. Chest pain might seem to some like an insufficient justification to stop a match mid-game. But chest pain can be serious. The proposed rule might also stretch out matches if players feel compelled to preempt nagging injuries with needless timeouts.

Still, it’s undeniable that something must be done. McEnroe’s plan might not be flawless, but it seems to be the best option tennis has at the moment.