Was Azarenka 'cheating' within the rules?
USA TODAY Sports7:17a.m. EST January 24, 2013
(Photo: Aaron Favila, AP)
MELBOURNE, Australia — Victoria Azarenka called a timeout late in her semifinal victory Thursday against Sloane Stephens of the USA.
The timing — just after failing to close out the match despite five match points, and just as Stephens was preparing to serve — caused a stir.
Throughout the nearly 10 minutes Azarenka was off the court, ESPN commentators questioned the move, and the debate heated up on Twitter. Was it gamesmanship?
Azarenka's answer to an on-court question just after the match certainly added to the suspicion.
"Well, I almost did the choke of the year. At 5-3, having so many chances I couldn't close it out," said Azarenka, who won 6-1, 6-4 to advance to the final against Li Na of China. "I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I'm one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure."
Nerves, feeling overwhelmed, are most certainly not cause for an MTO.
Azarenka was on the defensive in her post-match news conference — which almost entirely focused on the issue — and she said then that she was dealing with a rib injury that made it hard to breathe.
"I should have, you know, called the trainer a little bit earlier before that when I got to the point that I couldn't really breathe and had to go off court," she said. "A rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical timeout."
She also explained that she misunderstood the question in her on-court interview."I just really misunderstood what she asked me because the question was I had few difficulties and why I went off," Azarenka said. "I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn't close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties."
The ITF Grand Slam rulebook allows a medical timeout when "the physiotherapist/athletic trainer has evaluated the player and has determined that additional time for medical treatment is required."
Officials said the tournament doctor reported that Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries. Tournament director Craig Tiley confirmed their were two medical timeouts to address both injuries.
"On our initial assessment on this, we've given the all clear," Tiley said in an interview on Australian TV. "Everything was within the rules of the game."
Stephens' coach, David Nainkin, was clearly unhappy.
"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 shoudn't be allowed. End of story."
The delay was for nearly 10 minutes.
"They wanted to take two medical timeouts, for the knee and for that, but I wanted to take one because I wanted to go back on court," Azarenka said.
"The timing, yeah, it was my bad. The game before that when I lost my service game, it kept getting worse. I thought I would have to play through it and keep calm. But it just got worse."
Stephens downplayed the incident."It's happened before. Last match, match before, I've had people going for medical breaks, going to the bathroom," she said. "Didn't affect me. Just another something else that happens."
Some of the tennis world was not so calm. Much of the outrage was focused on the rule itself.
"You can't take an injury timeout for a choke," said seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander. "That's shocking to me. ... That's ridiculous. I don't care what the rule is but you should not be able to take in injury timeout when the other person is going to serve. Maybe you can take it if you forfeit the game. ... The rule is ridiculous. ... The rules are there to be followed, and she didn't break the rule but it's a horrible rule. The rule is ridiculous."
Nainkin, again, called it unfair.
"Sloane sat out there for 10 minutes while someone saves match points," he said. "It's momentum swings. That's part of the sport. You have 90 seconds on the changeover an you have to deal with what just happened. That's tennis. She (Azarenka) had 10 minutes to go inside and regroup. It's not fair."
Patrick McEnroe, who is part of ESPN's broadcast team, unleashed a series of tweets:
"So let me get this straight. She had a lot of nerves and that's why she left the court. Unbelievable"
"Are you kidding me??"
Azarenka, meanwhile, will move on to face Li in the final on Saturday, and she noted that the rib could still be an issue going forward.
"I'm being really honest here, what I'm talking about," she said, when asked if she believes players abuse the rule, using it as a stalling tactic. "But about somebody else, maybe somebody does, somebody doesn't, but I don't really care.
"When I play and somebody takes a medical timeout, I don't doubt them."
Contributing: Douglas Robson
UPDATE: Nainkin was also quoted by the NYT, where the story has made the front page of the electronic edition!
Nainkin, Stephens’s coach, said he had “never heard of two medical timeouts back to back.”
“In all my years, that’s a first,” he said. “Two different injuries? I think it’s unprofessional. Saying that, she did win the match and played a great game at 5-4, but tennis is a game of momentum and Sloane had the momentum, and obviously the little break definitely changed things.”