A few nights ago, I was watching the Australian Open quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. The youngster Stephens was fast afoot and hit the ball about as hard as the legend Serena, but wasn’t winning the important points. Serena won the first set, 6-3, so I figured that was that, and decided to get a full night’s sleep.
Next morning I saw the scoreline that Stephens had come back to win. “Oh, Man!” I thought, “I missed a great match.” But some reports said that Serena was suffering from more than the effects of the light ankle sprain she suffered in the first round. The Tennis Channel repeatedly rebroadcast the match and it was clear that in the second set Serena was just spinning in her serves and pattycaking her groundstrokes, but still holding fairly even with Sloane, who seemed flustered by her opponent’s obvious distress.
Tennis Channel color commenters trumpeted the match as an important victory for Sloane Stephens. The NY Times ran with, Stephens Upsets Williams in Stunner:
What was supposed to be a learning experience against one of the greatest tennis players in history turned instead into one of the bigger surprises in tennis history as the 19-year-old Sloane Stephens introduced herself to a global audience by rallying to defeat her 31-year-old American elder, Serena Williams, on Wednesday, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Farther down the page, the Times did eventually mention the injury thing:
The match took another turn in the eighth game when Williams shouted in pain as she ran forward and smacked a lunging backhand near the net. Grimacing, she was quickly broken again as Stephens took a 5-3 lead. Williams, limited in her movement, broke back in the next game and then called for a trainer on the changeover, eventually leaving the court for further treatment on her lower back.
“Well, a few days ago, it just got really tight, and I had no rotation on it,” she said. “I just went for this drop shot in the second set, and it just locked up on me. I think I couldn’t really rotate after that.”
Williams’s huge serve was considerably slower after she returned to the court, but she managed to hold at love to 5-all while serving change-ups to a visibly rattled Stephens.
Notice that Serena left the court for treatment, and that no one said, “boo” about it.
On Thursday, Stephens played the quarterfinal against Victoria (Vika) Azarenka, and I read that Sloane lost the first set even more quickly, 6-1. But in the second set, Azarenka ‘lost her cool’ according to the NY Times:
…the top-seeded Azarenka struggled to keep her cool down the stretch on a steamy day in Melbourne, when temperatures reached 97 degrees. … When Azarenka walked to her seat for the change of ends, she wrapped a towel stuffed with ice around her neck and was examined by the W.T.A. primary health care provider Victoria Simpson and by a tournament physician, Dr. Tim Wood. She eventually left the court for further treatment, which meant that Stephens, in her first Grand Slam semifinal, was left waiting to serve to stay in the match.
Azarenka returned to the court six minutes later, and the overall break in play was close to 10 minutes. The time allotted on a normal changeover is 90 seconds. … Though medical timeouts are permitted by the rules at that stage of a match in the case of injury, the timing of her break in play was questioned by many in the tennis community, who viewed it as potential gamesmanship.
No one had accused Serena of gamesmanship — but then she lost. Again the Tennis Channel rebroadcast ESPN’s coverage of the match over and over, so I got to watch the whole thing. Early in the second set, commenter Chris Evert did observe that Azarenka was favoring one leg, guessing that it was probably her knee that was injured. Later Azarenka was obviously in upper body pain, so it was no surprise when she called for the trainer. Sloane sat and stared, probably trying to stay focused — which a player has to be able to do in case it rains, or gets too dark, or someone calls for injury timeout.
When Vika returned, what I had read led me to expect that Sloane would muff several serves on her way to a weak service game. But on the first point, she hit a good serve, a few good strokes and went ahead 15-0. She did hit one double fault in that game, but overall she served and played about as well as she had been. Vika simply returned a lot better — as she had in the first set.
What really hurt Stephens was only winning 52% and 35% of points on her first and second serves in the first set, then only 36% of points on both first and second serves in the second set. But in A Timeout Jeered Round the World, the narrative has become that Azarenka is guilty of gamesmanship:
Shriver, who noted that Azarenka had also not mentioned the injury in an ESPN interview while coming off the court, was skeptical. “I think her response at the time was very honest and truthful, that she was stretching the rules,” Shriver said. “That was my reaction coming off the interview, and so that’s why I think all of us, many of us, jumped on it. Because we’ve seen the rule abused for years. I abused the rule when I played.”
If Azarenka was not legitimately injured, was calling a medical timeout cheating? Playing at the edge of the rules? Good old win-at-any-cost strategy?
It occurs to me that the greatest benefit of the injury timeout is to the tournament organizers. If players can receive treatment, they can keep playing. Otherwise they may forfeit — which annoys ticket holders. If players can receive prompt treatment, they can play with less chance of seriously injuring themselves, and pulling out of later events, which annoys tournament advertisers. If players can receive treatment, they can play hard, which can only make the tour look better.
What we have here, is an up-and-coming American player, on an American media network, losing to a more experienced foreigner. I predict that Sloane Stephens will have a fine career whether or not we accuse her opponents of cheating.