‘Something must be done about injury timeouts – they’re becoming a joke.’ That’s a cry we’ve been hearing more and more during the clay season.
There’s a lot of evidence to support that. In Rome, the Italian wildcard Gianluca Mager was struck by a sudden attack of cramp towards the end of his second set against Aljaz Bedene, and lay writhing in agony on the red dirt. The umpire went over to see if he was OK. Mager admitted it was cramp. The umpire made it clear cramp was not an injury so he couldn’t see the trainer. Mager then changed his tune, said it was a hip injury, at which point the umpire had to call the trainer.
In Paris, Kristina Mladenovic took an injury timeout after three games of her first round match because of a back problem. She came back, won the match 9-7, and went on to reach her first major quarter-final. That’s some physio!
And there are countless other tales. The former coach of a top name has admitted he persuaded his player to go into a match with a strategy to call an injury timeout if the match went long and he needed time to catch his breath. And the rule that says you can’t take an injury timeout with immediate effect unless the injury requires immediate attention frequently looks like it’s abused.
The obvious solution is to impose a complete ban on injury timeouts.
A player could seek medical or physiotherapeutic advice at a change of ends, in order to be sure that they’d not be making an injury worse if they played on, but they’d be limited to 90 seconds. And if they wanted the advice immediately, they’d have to forfeit all points until the next scheduled change of ends.
But we need to think this through. What happens if we have a big match – a Grand Slam semifinal or final – and one player tweaks a muscle early on? A three-minute rub or a painkilling pill might make the difference between a great spectacle and the whole thing ending after 30 minutes on a retirement.
And what of the image of the game? Cramp was for years banned as a reason for treatment, but it was then allowed for a few years. The turning point was a match when the Japanese player Shuzo Matsuoka lay writhing in agony on the court in full view of the TV cameras, the sporting world watching a player in great distress who couldn’t be helped. That made tennis look really bad. The rule reverted to cramp being disallowed because cramp is a fitness and body care issue, and if someone can be treated for cramp, it’s effectively discriminating against the fitter player, which goes against the grain of all sport. But if cramp is disallowed but other injuries can be treated, the ability to pass off cramp as another injury will always exist, and the fitter player’s rhythm will be disrupted.
Modern professional tennis is a very physical sport. The primary requirement of all players is to stay healthy. We therefore can’t be helping the sport if we take away the right of players to seek advice that might affect their competitiveness over the ensuing months.
Perhaps a compromise would be to allow the current timeouts but only at recognised changes of ends. That way, if a player felt a twinge at, say, 3-2 15-0, he or she would have to either play through that game plus the next one before getting the treatment, or forfeit those games for immediate attention. It would certainly focus a player’s mind on how much they really need to see the physio.