By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
CINCINNATI -- In the context of tennis matches, it was as gruesome a scene as fans have witnessed: Japan's Shuzo Matsuoka writhing in pain at the 1995 U.S. Open, crippled by cramps but refusing medical treatment because doing so would result in his automatic disqualification.
The spectacle, which was resolved when Matsuoka finally conceded defeat after protracted on-court suffering, changed the sport's rules by ushering in the "medical timeout" that gives injured players the right to halt a match for up to three minutes to receive medical care.
But in recent years, the rule has been wildly expanded by tennis pros playing fast and loose with its original intent. Instead of seeking help to stanch an open wound or tape a badly sprained ankle, players increasingly are summoning aid at critical junctures to catch a desperately needed breather, get a massage or disrupt an opponent's momentum.
"It's an absolute epidemic," says former champion John McEnroe, 50, among the more artful rule-stretchers in his prime. "It's crazy how far it has gone [from] what was meant to be a rule that would be helpful. It has gone to absurd levels. No doubt it needs to be addressed and changed."
The Women's Tennis Association did just that at the start of the 2009 season, introducing a "service fee" to discourage serial offenders. As a result, female pros are now allowed six medical timeouts per year. For each additional on-court medical call, they will be charged a fee, ranging from $100 to $300 depending on the caliber of the tournament in question.
Eight months into the season, no WTA player has exceeded her limit. Better still, according to WTA officials, the number of medical timeouts is down 33 percent from last year.
But the alleged abuse of the rule -- which some players view as no abuse at all -- is hardly confined to the women's game.
In January, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick called for a review of the policy during the Australian Open, troubled by the number of medical timeouts requested during the season's first major, which was played under withering heat and humidity.
In his quarterfinal against Roddick, Novak Djokovic called for a trainer to help with his cramps. After getting a massage of his neck, legs and shoulders, he withdrew from the match while trailing in the fourth set.
While Djokovic's actions were within his rights, Roddick and others have questioned the gray areas of the rules, which permit treatment for cramps and heat-related illness but not for "general player fatigue."
Policing that line is no easy feat, whether for the chair umpire, who has the prerogative to deny treatment and tell a player to resume the match, or for the medical trainer charged with evaluating the player's condition on the spot and deciding whether it falls within the definition of "treatable."
"I don't think you're ever going to get a clear-cut line, because it's a matter of someone telling the truth and not telling the truth," Roddick said earlier this week. "You can't put the trainers in the position where they're basically going to call someone a liar. That's never going to work."
Under the rules, medical timeouts are limited to three minutes. But the clock doesn't start ticking until the trainer has evaluated the injury or ailment. The break can be as much as 10 minutes -- long enough to disrupt an opponent's focus and feel.
Roddick likened the effect on the opponent to going for a 30-minute jog, sitting for 10 minutes and then trying to sprint. "It's not something that works out too well," he said.
Djokovic, who has developed a reputation as quick to call for the trainer during particularly arduous matches, says it's an issue on which players are bound to disagree. But he defended his right -- and that of his rivals -- to take advantage of it.
"My own opinion is that the timeouts are there, and they should be used -- in a good way, of course," said Djokovic, ranked fourth in the world. "I'm not saying that 100 percent of players who are using them are using them in the right way. There are some who are just using [it] in their favor to irritate and provoke the opponent. But that's not my case."
But the issue of fairness came up again last week in the finals of a men's tournament in Montreal, where Argentina's Juan Martín del Potro called a medical timeout just before his opponent, Andy Murray, was about to serve to force a critical tiebreak.
Former touring pro Brad Gilbert, commentating on the match for ESPN, immediately questioned del Potro's move.
"I thought it was a curious time," said Gilbert, who coached a number of top players, including Murray, Roddick and Andre Agassi.
After getting treatment, del Potro played on and ultimately lost in three sets. He then withdrew from this week's tournament in Cincinnati, citing exhaustion after playing 10 matches in 13 days en route to winning Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic and reaching the final in Montreal.
"Del Potro wasn't doing something that was illegal," Gilbert noted. "My problem isn't with him. It's with the interpretation of the rules. They need to rethink the rules."
For one, Gilbert doesn't think timeouts should be allowed before an opponent's serve. Nor does he think they should be allowed for ailments brought on by a lack of conditioning.
"I'm a little old-school on that," said Gilbert, 48. "If you're not fit, the other player has earned the right [to win]."