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Opinion

It's time for tennis to call timeout on medical breaks

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Editor
17th February, 2021
29

Ash Barty should have won her Australian Open quarter-final against the Czech Republic’s Karolina Muchova.

She’s not the sort of person to make excuses but she has every right to be annoyed by how her concentration was broken by a medical timeout in the second set.

Barty had just cruised through the first set in 24 minutes and had a break in the second when Muchova looked distraught at the change of ends.

She was visibly distressed and had a quick health check on court.

They recorded her temperature and checked her blood pressure before she was whisked away for a timeout.

Thirteen minutes later she was back. Had it been a little longer, Barty would have been allowed to warm up again for five minutes to get her rhythm back.

Instead, the match completely changed.

Muchova hardly made a mistake and Barty was the one slightly off her game. In the best of three sets it doesn’t take much for the momentum to completely swing and that’s exactly what happened.

Credit has to go to Muchova for regaining her composure to beat the world number one, but one has to question how that composure was allowed to be regained.

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Barty was gracious in defeat.

“It’s completely within the rules for her to take it. It shouldn’t be a massive turning point in the match. I’m disappointed that it did become a turning point,” she said.

Medical timeouts have been controversial for a long time in grand slam tennis on both the men’s and women’s tour.

Novak Djokovic raised eyebrows several times for the timing of some of his medical timeouts including the 2016 US Open Final.

The rules are fairly vague about when you can call for a medical timeout.

“A medical condition is a medical illness or a musculoskeletal injury that warrants medical evaluation and/or medical treatment by the Sports Physiotherapist (also known as the Primary Health Care Provider) during the warm-up or the match.”

The rules go on to state that a medical timeout is not permitted for general fatigue/or if the condition can’t be treated appropriately in the timeframe.

Commentators initially thought that Muchova may have had a neck injury but the Czech player didn’t mention that at all in her post-match interview with Jim Courier.

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“I was a bit lost on the court and my head was spinning so I took a break,” she said.

“It helped me.”

This response will put the microscope back on the unfair advantage of medical timeouts.

By her own admission, Muchova wanted to shorten the points when she returned from the break because Barty had won all the long rallies and it was gruelling for the Czech 25th seed. She was, in effect, acknowledging that Barty’s play was causing her to become fatigued.

We don’t know exactly what treatment Muchova received but there needs to be far more scrutiny of the medical timeout process. If she simply received electrolytes, a Panadol and a cool pack on her head why couldn’t this be done courtside in the usual sit-down time?

Why should Ash Barty essentially get penalised for causing her opponent to be in a state of confusion and fatigue?

In professional cricket, administrators have outlawed the use of runners because the rules were being exploited.

Something similar must be done in professional tennis with medical timeouts. Maybe it’s as simple as mandating that if you can’t get treated in the three minutes in each change of ends then sadly you have to retire.

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Sure, it’s likely to result in far more retirements in grand slam matches but it’s a small price to pay for the current system which leaves players’ intentions open for questioning.