John McEnroe said the use of injury timeouts is “absolutely an epidemic” on the tour, speaking Wednesday via an ESPN2 conference call.
The latest outbreak of timeout-itis occurred last weekend in Montreal, when Juan Martin del Potro called the trainer twice and took a bathroom break during his championship match against Andy Murray. The Argentine had treatment on a sore shoulder during a tricky moment – he was up 6-5 in the second set and Murray was about to serve to stay in the match. Del Potro called the trainer back in the third set to rub his thigh.
Andy Murray, who won the match, was diplomatic about it afterwards: “It’s not the best time to have an injury timeout (in the second set), no question about that, but you know, if the guy is struggling or is injured, then obviously I don’t have a problem with him taking the timeout.”
John McEnroe does have a problem with it:
“The players are getting more and more athletic and doing more and more to get themselves in tip top condition. And to be someone who says, “Look I need a little rub down on my legs” (when you’re) being broken down by your opponent – mentally throwing the (other) guy off as well as physically getting something to help yourself recover – it’s against everything that sports is about, I think.”
It hasn’t always been this way. This injury time out rule is a modern-day invention – established after an incident at the 1995 US Open, when player Shuzo Matsuoka defaulted out of the first round due to severe cramping. At the time, a player automatically forfeited the match if he requested medical treatment. Matsukoa didn’t ask for a trainer, but spent so much time writhing in agony on the court, unattended, that he was defaulted on a time violation. It was almost as painful to watch as experience, and the medical time out rule was established to avoid future grisly scenes. *Clarification – before 1995 injury timeouts were allowed but not for conditioning ailments like cramping.*
John McEnroe says the rule is being abused:
“What’s meant to be a rule to be helpful has gone to absurd levels now with people obviously stretching the rules and taking advantage. Clearly there is a big difference between a real injury and needing a breather. Or trying to throw your opponnent. . . . The bathroom breaks and injury time outs have been pretty key components in the matches, which was not meant to happen, originally.”
It’s not just John McEnroe or crusty tennis purists nattering about the continuous play of the good old days, when no one sat down during changeovers or toweled off from head to toe after every point. Both Andy Roddick and Roger Federer have complained about players abusing the system, taking lengthy time outs (sometimes up to 10 minutes when evaluation and treatment is factored in) for issues related to physical conditioning and not dire injury.
Roddick complained about the rule at this year’s Australian Open, when Novak Djokjovic was treated for cramps and soreness during their quarterfinal, before retiring from the match (via Reuters):
“I looked over (at Djokovic) and I was confused, because I thought it was one injury per timeout, and I saw a calf, a neck, and an arm but I guess cramping is one condition. There’s obviously… a little bit of grey area there. Hopefully we’ll be able to do something about it.”
Roger Federer quipped: “I’m almost in favor of saying, you know what, if you’re not fit enough, just get out of here.“
*UPDATE* Novak Djokovic was asked about this after beating Ivan Ljubicic this week in Cincinnati:
I’m not saying that 100% of players who are using them are using them in the right way. There are some who are just using in their favor to irritate and provoke the opponent. But that’s not my case. I was having a lot of timeouts in last couple of years, and I know that they were for cause there. I don’t see any reason why some players are just irritated by the fact that somebody else has a timeout. If he doesn’t feel well, obviously it’s there. He can ask for help.
It’s an issue on the WTA tour as well. Dinara Safina rolled her eyes at the rule while playing in Los Angeles this month: “I’m competing if I’m stepping on the court. Don’t find excuses. . . I will never call a trainer if I have a headache. This way I’m very honest. If I call for something it must be really bad.”
Both Roddick and Federer say they want the rule reviewed. John McEnroe thinks change could come soon: “There’s no doubt it needs to be addressed and changed. That conversation has been taking place in the locker rooms. . .So hopefully at the end of this year it will be dealt with.”
But how can the tours really deal with it? The rule was established because of a cramping tennis player. Yes, Matsuoka’s case was extreme – but do Djokovic and Del Potro really need to roll and moan on the court before the chair umpire lets them call a trainer? A piece in the NYTimes suggests a boxing-style corner man be assigned to each player, to rub, tape and hydrate at will during changeovers. I say we give each player one three minute time out per match, which can be used for any reason and at any time. If a player uses it to mess up their opponent’s service game, only to default after rolling his ankle in the third set tiebreaker – that’s just bad karma.
Or maybe this is much ado about nothing. . .what do you think?
For the letter of the law, click here to read the ATP Rulebook (Section VII. The Competition)