How do ambiguous regulations on Medical Time-Outs in Tennis often lead to unfair advantages and misuse?
*Written by Navni Sisodia
The issue of medical time-outs has been a constant discussion in tennis, with players often accused of using the lenient rule concerning these breaks to gain an advantage using gamesmanship. Time and again, these issues come to the forefront every year. The post-covid, 2021 Grand Slam season saw every one of the major Slams embroiled in heated controversies related to lengthy breaks in play due to medical time-outs. With the end of the 2022 Grand Slam season on the horizon, it is observed that the last few months have not been very different.
The existence of vague and ambiguous regulations seems to be responsible for the debate on these issues. The use of medical time-outs (MTO) as a stalling tactic is common. The break in play, which might seem negligible, might just cost a player the match due to the loss in momentum. Such time-outs, especially when off-court, penalise the player on the court as there is no other option but to wait for the opponent.
Ashleigh Barty’s MTO in the second round of the French Open 2021, which was taken for a pre-existing injury, led to another round of criticism and reignited the debate surrounding the MTO regulations. Many analysts and coaches have often voiced their opinions against players taking off-court time-outs for evaluation and treatment for pre-existing injuries.
The Wimbledon 2021 saw the ugly exchange between Jelena Ostapenko and Ajla Tomljanovic over the issue of a break in play caused by an MTO taken by Ostapenko at 4-0, the end of an even game. Tomljanovic who had won seven straight games, after being a set and 2-0 down in the second set, stood at 4-0 after claiming the second set at 6-4. The MTO was granted to Ostapenko, before the changeover, for an abdominal injury.[i]
The timing of the time-out itself seemed dubious. The idea that the time-out was taken to gain an unfair advantage over the opponent cannot be ruled out. Since the time limit of 3 minutes is only applicable when the treatment starts, this break lasted for over 10 minutes while Tomljanovic had to suffer due to the break in play before the changeover.
Similarly, Russian Veronika Kudermetova was accused of "unsportsmanlike" conduct during her French Open quarter-final against compatriot Daria Kasatkina.[ii] Kudermetova’s medical timeout came the point when she was 6-5 up in the second set - with Kasatkina preparing to serve to force a tiebreak. Though the timeout was given for a foot injury, the timing of the same stirred controversy.
Even during the Australian Open 2022, Rafael Nadal’s quarter-final against Denis Shapovalov acts as an example of the ambiguity of the MTO rules and their applicability in each case. With an MTO after the fourth set and a toilet break to go with the medical evaluation something that had been denied to Shapovalov at past tournaments. Nadal was not handed out any code violations for exceeding the time limit resulting in a delay of seven minutes after the fourth set but was later given a time violation for taking too long to serve.[iii]
Medical Time-Outs as per the ITF Rules
As per the ITF’s Grand Slam Rulebook, the purpose of the medical evaluation is to determine whether the player has encountered a treatable condition and whether medical treatment is required. The rules are fairly vague, when it comes to the timing at which such a time-out can be requested as the rulebook defines a medical condition as ‘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.’[iv]
The time allowed for an MTO is limited to 3 minutes of treatment. The MTO begins when the Physiotherapist is ready to start the treatment. Such treatment can be taken off-court as well and is up to the discretion of the physiotherapist. It is often the evaluation of the player’s condition that takes time, as the treatment time is limited to 3 minutes.[v]
Though the rules do not allow for an MTO in cases of general fatigue and muscle cramps/or if the condition cannot be treated in an appropriate manner in the given timeframe, the time taken for a medical evaluation before the grant of an MTO can definitely help a player even if they are just experiencing general fatigue or in need of rest. The rules related to the treatment of fatigue and what constitutes an injury are so flexible and open to individual interpretation that even clear transgressions are very difficult to punish.
Even when the players are acting within the rules, the strategic importance of MTOs cannot be ignored. Roger Federer, after his 2017 Australian Open semi-final, had also effectively admitted the same and had mentioned how MTOs also act as mental help as well.
Is there scope for potential solutions?
With the rollercoaster of a season in 2021, ATP did come out with a set of new rules that aimed at speeding up the play time with rules related to toilet breaks, and attire changes to come into effect from 2022. Apart from those, there were proposed changes to the Medical Time Out rule, however with no date implementation as of yet.[vi]
Some potential solutions can be to give players the option of having a time-out for whatever purpose they see fit, to utilise during a changeover or between sets. Even in the case of a usual MTO, the option of taking it should be restricted to changeover or between sets and should be strictly enforced. In case of a requirement mid-game or at the end of an even game, before the changeover, the player should have the option to wait till the changeover or to forfeit the remaining points till the changeover.
The new proposed rules mention similar changes. According to the new rules, one three-minute timeout can be taken per match, only during a changeover or a set break. In the case of where the player is unable to continue playing till the next changeover, they will have to forfeit the remaining points that are required to reach the changeover or set break.[vii]
However, when it comes to the 3-minute time limit, there is always a risk of the player not receiving a proper assessment due to shortened time limit. The same issue would arise if there were to be a penalty in case of delays during an MTO. With this debate plaguing every Grand Slam tournament in the recent few years maybe the 2022 season can end with some beneficial changes in guidelines across all tournaments and categories that aid the athletes without compromising the integrity of the sport.
*The author is a law graduate from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana.
(The image used here is for representative purposes only)
[i] Max Laughton, ‘ “You know she’s lying”: Aussie’s sweet Wimbledon revenge after claiming rival was ‘faking’ injury’ (Fox Sports, 4 July 2021) <https://www.foxsports.com.au/tennis/wimbledon/wimbledon-2021-tennis-news-ajla-tomljanovic-def-jelena-ostapenko-medical-timeout-tactical-argument-video-fake-injury/news-story/bb3ce109f3d83482903677696716eb0e > [ii] Andrew Reid, ‘Russian Star embroiled in French Open Furore: “Unsportsmanlike” ‘(Yahoo Sports, 2 June 2022) <https://au.sports.yahoo.com/tennis-2022-veronika-kudermetova-unsportsmanlike-french-open-furore-005626812.html> [iii] Christopher Clarey, ‘Rafael Nadal Prevails After Five Sets and Charge of Favoritism’ (The New York Times, 25 January 2022) <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/25/sports/tennis/nadal-shapovalov-australian-open.html> [iv] Grand Slam® Tournament Regulations 2022, Art I(W)(3)(a) [v] Grand Slam® Tournament Regulations 2022, Art I(W)(3)(c) [vi] ATP Staff, ‘ATP Announces Rule Changes To Speed Play’ (ATP Tour, 23 November 2021) https://www.atptour.com/en/news/toilet-breaks-medical-time-outs [vii] ATP Staff, ‘ATP Announces Rule Changes To Speed Play’ (ATP Tour, 23 November 2021) https://www.atptour.com/en/news/toilet-breaks-medical-time-outs