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Nadal, Wawrinka and the back injury: Why medical timeouts should be banned from tennis

Rafael Nadal's back injury stole the focus from Stanislas Wawrinka's victory at the 2014 Australian Open. Maybe medical timeouts should be banned?

Rafael Nadal during the medical timeout for his back injury during the Australian Open 2014 final against Stanislas Wawrinka

Rafael Nadal during the medical timeout for his back injury during the Australian Open 2014 final against Stanislas Wawrinka

Sport, as we all know, isn’t just about results. Winning and losing are the two absolute dimensions that give meaning to any athletic endeavour, yes, but there are a million other intangible aspects that make a game more than the sum of its parts. Winning is well and good, but winning in a certain way can either elevate the victory to mythical proportions, or reduce it to an unremarkable afterthought.

The back-to-the-wall winner unfurled from an impossible position, the maniacal sprint to chase down a drop shot, the roar of celebration on winning match point – all of these things enrich the sporting experience for both the players and viewers in a way that nothing else can. If it weren’t for these poignant little moments that remain etched in our memory for years, sport may as well have comprised of robots being pitted against each other in a confined arena.

On Sunday, in the Australian Open men’s final, the sporting experience for both Stanislas Wawrinka and the millions of spectators around the world was diminished more than a little as the Grand Slam of the Asia/Pacific came to a tumultuous end. The culprit? The back injury suffered by Rafael Nadal just before the start of the match.

Don’t get me wrong; Nadal certainly put up a brave show by continuing with the match despite being in obvious pain, and I’m not even remotely suggesting that the injury was in any way less than 100% genuine. But whether it was Nadal’s fault or not, the constant talk about his injury took a lot away from Wawrinka’s victory. Everywhere you looked headlines read, “Wawrinka defeats injured Nadal to win Australian Open”, with the word ‘injured’ jumping out at you like a flesh-eating dolphin zombie.

Wawrinka couldn’t even celebrate winning the title to his heart’s content; perhaps out of respect for the hobbled Nadal, the Swiss eschewed any kind of dramatic falling-to-the-ground or breaking-into-tears act in favour of a simple arms-raised-aloft celebration. He almost looked a little sheepish while acknowledging the crowd’s applause as he put a forehand winner past Nadal on match point. After producing two weeks of scintillating tennis and emerging as the last man standing in the gruelling heat of Melbourne, was this what Wawrinka deserved?

The aftermath of the match was even more dispiriting if you were a Wawrinka fan. Nadal, admirably, refused to talk about his injury in the post-match press conference, but the fact that he had taken a medical time-out during the match made the questions impossible to avoid. He couldn’t help himself from saying, “Is tough to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play at your best.”

“Not able to play at your best.” If I had to pick a combination of seven words to completely alter the tone of a match, I’d choose that one. Irrespective of how beautifully Wawrinka played in the first set or how calmly he regrouped in the fourth to put the finishing touches on the match, those seven words of Nadal will remain in everyone’s consciousness. Wawrinka won, yes, but Nadal wasn’t at his best.

Nadal won a lot of plaudits for his sportsmanlike behaviour throughout the final, but is it too inconsiderate to wish he had refrained from uttering that line? He wasn’t giving an excuse for his loss, but in terms of the credit it took away from Wawrinka, it is hard to separate Nadal’s words from the infamous quotes that Serena Williams has regularly spouted throughout her career after losing (the most head-shaking ones of which are, in my memory, “I was only playing at 50% of my level today” and “my opponent made a lot of lucky shots”).

Wawrinka himself is all too aware of the unfortunate blemish that will remain, perhaps forever, on his maiden Grand Slam victory. “This wasn’t the way I wanted to win a tennis match. But it’s a Grand Slam, so you have to take it,” he said after the match. Sure, Wawrinka would probably take a win against an injured Nadal over a heartbreaking five-set loss to a fit Nadal any day of the week. But what he would like to ‘take’ most of all would be a win over a fit Nadal which, considering the way he played in that imperious first set, he probably would have got anyway if things had gone according to the script.

It’s all very well to indulge in this kind of armchair analysis and berate Nadal for the role he played in diminishing Wawrinka’s moment of glory. But given the existing rules in tennis and the natural human curiosity of journalists to know each and every exquisite detail of a player’s injury, it’s hard to see what else the Spaniard could have done to divert attention away from his back ailment.

Stanislas Wawrinka and his somewhat muted celebration at winning the 2014 Australian Open title over the injured Rafael Nadal

Stanislas Wawrinka and his somewhat muted celebration at winning the 2014 Australian Open title over the injured Rafael Nadal

Last year at the Australian Open there was another medical timeout that attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. Victoria Azarenka supposedly ‘panicked’ when she couldn’t close out her semifinal match against Sloane Stephens, and took a 10-minute break to ‘catch her breath’. That created an uproar in the tennis world; a ‘panic attack’ didn’t exactly qualify as a legitimate reason for a medical timeout, everyone claimed, because timeouts are for physical problems rather than mental ones. The image of the then World No. 1 was permanently sullied, and question marks were raised about the validity of her victory over Stephens.

But how do we differentiate the physical ailments from the mental ones to decide whether they warrant a medical timeout? The rule-enforcers do have a list of injuries for which a medical timeout is allowed, but no list can ever be completely exhaustive to take into account each and every genuine problem. While we’re on the subject, an interesting point to note here is that cramping is not on the list of permissible injuries; if a player is suffering from cramps, he or she just has to soldier on, and is not allowed any kind of break to get medical help. The ostensible reason for that given by the officials is that cramping is very frequently used as an excuse by players to take an extended timeout and change the momentum of the match.

“The problem was there was a lot of suspicion that the players were cramping to get medical timeouts at crucial stages in matches. So they were tactical medical timeouts with cramps as the excuse,” Tim Wood, chief medical officer at the Australian Open, was quoted as saying back in 2010, when the rule to disallow timeouts for cramping was introduced.

Stefan Fransson, the Grand Slam supervisor of officials for the federation, also had something to say about the issue: “There’s basically been a feeling around for quite some time that cramping, in many cases, is what we used to call ‘a loss of conditioning.’ And because of that, it shouldn’t entitle players to have a medical timeout.”

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine cases of cramping where a player simply cannot play to the best of his ability. And I’m also sure that a lot of players do experience bona fide mental problems during a match that would, in any other profession, qualify as a medical condition.

So where do we draw the line? How do we decide what requires a medical timeout and what doesn’t? From where I’m looking, the issue is both murky and confusing, not to mention unfair on players who, while refraining from abusing the system themselves, can only watch helplessly when their opponents go around taking timeouts at the drop of a hat.

So here’s what I propose: why not ban medical timeouts from tennis?

Think about it: if Nadal hadn’t taken that extended timeout in the second set (which he was well within his rights to take under the existing rules), his injury would certainly not have been such a big talking point. Yes, I realize that he might have been forced to retire from the match instead, but at least in that case we would have been spared from watching the borderline farcical second set of the match, in which Nadal barely moved for any ball that landed more than a foot away from him. And while Wawrinka would still have had an asterisk attached to his maiden Slam triumph, at least the asterisk would have been an abbreviated one; the major focus would have been on the Swiss’s excellent play leading up to the final rather than Nadal’s laboured play after his timeout.

The concept of the medical timeout in tennis has always intrigued me, and not in a good way. Fitness is as integral a part of the sport as serve speeds and forehand grips. So why is a dip in fitness by a player, even if it is for a period of three minutes, given a pass? When you are having problems with your ball toss (think Ana Ivanovic), you are expected to suck it up and serve anyway. Why shouldn’t the same standard be applied to a back niggle or a shoulder twinge?

I’m not advocating that we barbarically force the players to play through their pain. There are always the changeovers and breaks between sets; if the problem really is that serious, the player can forfeit a couple of games and get to the changeover and get all the medical help he or she needs. Besides, the option of retirement is always available too; if the pain gets to an extent that it can’t be brushed away any longer, the player can always walk away and concede defeat. Pack up, go home, nurse your injury, and try again when you’re fully fit to compete. That way, everyone is saved from all the drama and the shenanigans that inevitably arise in matches frequently interrupted by timeouts (I’m looking at you, Jelena Jankovic), and the focus remains on the victor rather than the intricate details of the hurt player’s injury.

A big question that arises here, of course, is the effect this will have on spectator interest. A full match played out on the court, even if it is interrupted by a series of timeouts, would always be preferable to the spectators sitting in the stands than a match that ends after, say, five games. When you shell out cash to watch a match on the court, you want to see plenty of action, not just a handful of points.

Something tells me, however, that aside from cases where a player hurts himself of herself during the match – which anyway isn’t very frequently seen - the number of mid-match retirements wouldn’t increase by much. Stripped of the option of taking a break in the middle of the match, a player carrying a niggle into the match would think twice before hitting the court. And this system would also prevent the timeout abuse that may or may not be happening in the existing scenario.

This is not really a radical idea; there have been calls for the elimination of the medical timeout in the past too. But with the injury count climbing ever higher with each passing year on both the ATP and WTA tours, there has perhaps never been a better time to reconsider the injury-related rules in tennis.

The centre of attention in any sport should be the actual play during the matches, not the injuries suffered by the players. In many ways, this year’s Australian Open final was a low point for tennis in the eyes of the global sporting world. And for a sport which has lofty ambitions of becoming a true global ‘event’, even a seemingly small setback such as this cannot be taken lightly.

For now, however, we haven’t seen the last of medical timeouts in tennis, and the sport is the poorer for it. Just ask Stanislas Wawrinka.

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