Tennis has done away with linespeople, let judges and spectators. Eliminate the players and it’d be perfect.
Djust Djoking. Sort of.
Novak Djokovic’s ability to recover from injury mid-match has become one of the world No.1’s calling cards.Credit:Getty
What makes the thing so mesmerising is that you can turn on a match without the slightest idea of who’s playing, yet before you know it you can’t go to bed because this has become the most important thing in your world, a one-to-one connection between performer and spectator. Yes, it’s like watching paint dry … but it’s midnight, you’re still up, and you really want that paint to get there!
With so much character (in every sense of the word) on the line, it was instructive to see the wash-up of the Ashleigh Barty-Karolina Muchova quarter-final, which brought the issue of fake injuries into sharp focus. Barty won eight of the first 10 games, upon which Muchova took a ‘medical timeout’. The Czech 25th seed then won 11 of the next 14 games to knock the Australian world No.1 out. Doctor, I’ll have what she’s having.
Predictably, a public outcry followed. Our Ash done got robbed. Exactly what medical condition was Muchova suffering from? Her ‘head was spinning’, she said. From vertigo or from watching winners fly past her? Nobody could tell, and Muchova wouldn’t say. As every kid who’s chucked a sickie knows, symptoms of some illnesses are a matter between oneself and one’s conscience. In any case, Muchova showed a Lazarus-like return to full health, and soon it was Barty looking green around the gills.
Barty didn’t complain. Muchova was ‘within her rights’, she said. Taking her natural graciousness beyond its well-documented limits, Barty said Muchova’s actions were ‘within the rules’. But were they, if she was faking? Maybe Barty had something to hide. She too had taken medical timeouts in matches. Did she mean she too had faked illness or injury to disrupt an opponent’s flow, exploiting a rule that was meant to protect all players, not just the one seeking an unfair edge? Everyone was too polite to ask.
Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch
The shabby exploitation of medical care has long been normalised, the tone set from the top. In winning his eight Australian Opens, Novak Djokovic has used the pained look, the decided limp and the medical timeout as effectively as his double-handed backhand. At Melbourne Park, Djokovic has each year been the unparalleled champion of the miraculous return to health. It’s become such a key part of his armoury that others copy it. Watching him play Canada’s Milos Raonic on Sunday was like watching mirror images of Monty Python’s Black Knight. You bung on your abdominal strain, I’ll give you my turned ankle. You try to get me with your back spasms, I shall return serve with a searing neck pain. Just a flesh wound!
This bizarre pantomime – the superb quality of the tennis, as always with Djokovic, confesses to the hopelessness of the acting and the utter disregard for sportsmanship – even drew in the admirable tournament director Craig Tiley, who said he was sure that even with all his injuries, Novak would keep playing through the tournament. My mum said when she heard this, she assumed Tiley was acknowledging that Novak was not actually injured and was calling him a cheat. Hallelujah, I thought. Year after year we go through this, with Lleyton Hewitt commenting, ‘Gee, Novak is in obvious pain, I can’t see him getting through this’. The hapless opponent is thrown out by Novak’s cries of agony. Two hours later, Novak prevails in a five-set ‘thriller’, which of course is anything but a thriller because it’s so predictable. And Lleyton has either been sucked in again, or he’s faking it as much as Novak.
It’s time to drop the fiction of the medical timeout. Perhaps they could institute a legal timeout such as is used in basketball.
So I was ecstatic that Tiley had called Novak a cheat. Only he didn’t. He was just joining the chorus of praise for Novak’s ability to overcome so much pain.
There’s no praise for how we at home overcome our pain.
Djokovic has been exaggerating injuries for so long, it’s just another part of tennis.
Nobody bothers complaining in public; it’s up to them to find their own way, fair or foul, to put their opponent off or just shut up and take it. Because of a taboo against looking like a sore loser, victims blame themselves. Surely nobody can forget Naomi Osaka’s silent suffering after Williams’s tantrum in the 2018 US Open final. Osaka was the one left looking embarrassed. Is it dignified to stay silent? Silence is often described as good grace, but really it’s the triumph of cynicism.
Tennis will rebound. When Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe led the game into the gutter by pioneering the tactical tantrum, the sport’s death was forecast. Instead, champions of the 1990s such as Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf really did let tennis do the talking again. Federer, after a fork in the road early in his career, became a sporting hero in the fullest sense. Every ounce of personality, for those players, went into the racquet.
In the meantime, it’s time for tennis’s authorities to drop the fiction of the medical timeout. Perhaps they could institute a legal timeout, no fake injuries needed, such as is used in basketball.
Novak could just say, ‘I’ve lost my flow, I don’t want to play for five minutes.’ Such a rule change would be giving in to the cheats, but at least it’d be honest.
(Unless it’s the irritating cynicism, the faking in order to put the other player off, which is the whole point…)
When the game has been stripped of all atmospheric cover, losing the distraction provided by yahoos in the stands, the faking of injuries puts us spectators in intolerable pain. In an empty arena, when you’re not there, nobody can hear your screams of agony, and nobody will believe that it’s the real thing.
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