Sports Arena

Do Regulations Encourage Cheating?

A simple medical time-out at the Australian Open gets our correspondent tangled up in existential issues.

By 1.28.13

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Viktoria Azarenka, who retained her Australian Open title in the ladies’ singles division by beating an injured Na Li in three sets, was accused of cheating by observers and bloggers, including USTA big Patrick McEnroe, who rushed to judgment after a controversial extended medical time-out during her semifinal against the teen age phenom Sloane Stephens. However, you should always check the evidence before saying mean things about people, who are born in sin, I admit, but who nevertheless do not necessarily live in sin, if they were raised correctly and studied Latin in school.

The governing bodies of the women’s and men’s tours specify that a player can request a medical time-out times during a match, normally for three minutes per injury and only during changeovers Observers and sportswriters have suggested that competitors occasionally avail themselves of the time-out not because they are genuinely hurt physically but because the intensity of it all is getting to them psychologically. In a word, they are cracking under pressure and need some moments to go into the lotus position or take some other calming therapy which they learned in tennis camp.

Miss Azarenka somehow got 10 minutes during a bad patch in the second set. She had won the first, found herself up 5-3 against her opponent’s serve, and managed to blow five break opportunities in a row. She seemed to be talking to herself and going ga-ga in the head, while her young opponent stayed cool and, with the score now 5-4, looked all set to do her damnedest to break Vika and even up the score. Then – ah, dreams.

It is true tennis is a mental game, but so is boxing. In one of the finest boxing movies ever made, Somebody Up There Likes Me, directed by the great Robert Wise (who is better known as the co-director with Jerome Robbins of another fight movie, West Side Story), a boxer fakes an injury to avoid getting involved with gangsters who want him to help them put the fix in. This really happened, according to sweet science experts, to Rocky Graziano, on whose career the film is based; indeed, the experts say the film is quite faithful to the biographical record, which shows you can sometimes believe what you see on the screen, which is better than can be said about the papers.

Notwithstanding, Rocky Graziano was suspended in New York for refusing to finger the fixers. Whether the suspension was fair remains one of sport’s great controversies to this day, and is one of the reasons his epic three-fight contest with Tony Zale took place far from the Brooklynite’s native ground, or pavement.

Boxing, like football, is a brutal sport, and it appears that the socialists who govern us for our own good will get around to banning both, after they remove our guns from our cold, dead fingers. Charlton Heston, who said something along these lines, plays a part in a movie where there is another brutal sport, chariot-racing – but I digress. The point here is that the moral corner in which Rocky Graziano found himself was quite different from the one into which Miss Azarenka may or may not have stumbled, depending on what you make of the medical time-out rule.

The boxer’s case bore some affinity with Elia Kazan’s, or Lillian Hellman’s. Kazan famously “named names” when asked to do so by a Congressional committee investigating Communist Party influence in the film industry, but Miss Hellman (of whom Mary McCarthy once said every word she ever wrote was a lie, including the prepositions) boldly refused to change her wardrobe to fit the year’s fashion, whatever that was supposed to mean. She did not go to jail, though others did for taking the same position. Kazan was vilified, but had a great career that included a classic that addresses the issue of bearing witness, On the Waterfront.

However, in a nod to one of the passionate issues of the 1950s, Graziano (played by Paul Newman) at one point shouts at the comish, “I ain’t naming no names.” Keeping faith with the code of the old neighborhood, or fear of gangsters? It is a tough call and I would cast no stones. But in the case of the tennis rule, playing by the rules – cooperating with the authorities – presents you with no such stark abyss. The rule says if you feel lousy, you says so, and if they believe you, you takes your break. It is not anyone’s business what is making you feel lousy, unless they decide it looks fishy, and if you want to call a mental wall a sore big toe, that is between you and your conscience, it does not affect the security of the Republic by way of insidious communistic influence in popular culture, nor does it affect the integrity of the sport, unless you think the number one lady acting like a tramp is naughty.

Well, she did not dope herself; several players, it might be noted, had harsh words for the cycling personality Lance Armstrong, whose troubles took a strange twist when he appeared on TV during the Open and he said, by way of self-justification, that whereas he did indeed sue a young woman who played by the rules and reported him to the authorities, and harassed and bullied her and nigh ruined her financially, he did not call her fat. A real gentleman, that guy, just a thug when convenient. Several top tennis stars tut-tutted and said he damaged the sport of cycling, which they follow avidly.

Some observers at Melbourne noted that Miss Azarenka was on course to win, anyway, so who cares. That is a reckless position. That is like Mrs. Hillary Clinton snapping at a Senate Committee, “What difference does it make?” with regard to the reasons for her department’s failures in the Benghazi affair. The difference could be crucial indeed; there may have been dereliction of duty, not human error, and the dereliction may have been politically motivated, meaning malevolent. Military officers are court-martialed for much less; can secretaries of state endanger the Republic and bring murder into the ranks of their own department with impunity?

Moreover, the whole reason there was a controversy is that, in fact, the momentum in the match has shifted and Miss Sloan Stephens, who is 19 and one of the main hopes for the future of American women’s tennis, was fighting back against an obviously rattled Miss Azarenka, who is the present, as well as the near-term, of Belarusian tennis. Why a nation that was created as a strategic fiction by the German General Staff during World War I needs tennis in its future is a mystery, but Miss Azarenka is very much for real and she was defending her title, having won at Melbourne Park last year. Even on the television screen, in front of which I watched the match, due to Mr. Tyrrell having sent me to Africa instead of Australia, it was apparent that she was getting the willies, hitting baseline shots she normally whacks almost like Serena Williams into the net repeatedly as Miss Stephens climbed back from a hole and seemed on course to overtake her in the second set. Vika could have lost.

Which means Sloan, who upset an injured Miss Williams in the quarters, could have won. Note that Miss Williams did not complain about having the willies. She fought on, and she had taken a really bad fall in one of the early rounds. Na Li took a really bad one during the final, and she fought on. Serena persevered unto what must have been a disappointing loss for her, given her strong streak last year, which as a matter of fact ended with a brilliant victory at the U.S. Open against the same blonde Belarusian bombshell, much heftier than Miss Sharapova, whose own amazing Oz streak was shattered by the Chinese dynamo, Na Li, in the other semi. Misses Sharapova and Azarenka are shriekers. Even as they hit the ball they emit a bone-chilling “yeaharharwrrah,” which in the Siberian vernacular – Miss Sharapova, whose fair skin belies her Florida address and hints at her real-life origins – means, “Your shoelace is untied, girl!”

It was, actually, a fine tournament, with no big upsets other than the Argentine champ Juan-Martin del Potro bombing out in the first round. You could argue the Stephens-Williams match was an upset, but you could just as well argue that when the no. 17 in the WTA ranking beats the no. 1, it is a surprise but not an upset. An upset is where the University of Chicago beats Alabama (while football is still played under rules allowing for physical contact – are you with me, Quin?) If, in a marvelous five-setter, Stan Wawrinka had pulled off a victory against Novak Djokovic, it would not have been any more of an upset than Andy Murray’s five-setter against Roger Federer, a great match in which both played sensationally all-court, acrobatic tennis until the last set when the Swiss champ seemed to run out of gas.

It took something out of Murray, however, who ran out of gas even sooner in the final against Djokovic, and after a strong start he let the game slip away in the fourth set and the defending champion took his third Australian Open title in a row and launched another run at a calendar year Grand Slam, a feat nary accomplished since Rod Laver, at the height of Australia’s tennis glory days, pulled it off.

Murray did not call for any extended time-outs, though he did request some re-taping of blistered feet, which was done at ringside, excuse me court side. The fact is that, to reach some sort of ethical resolution of this weighty issue, the international tennis authorities might consider simply abolishing the medical time-out rule. Play through the pain or quit, and no ambiguities.

But whatchagonnado? Authorities exist to exert authority, and the hell with what it does to sportsmanship, productivity, the freedom our forefathers fought for. It does not occur to these folks that making dumb rules invites disrespect for rules in general and causes teenagers to steal motorcycles and kill themselves while drunk. The authorities do not see it this way. They live for rules. Rules give their lives meaning.

Sloan Stephens, at any rate, came out a lady, refusing to complain even if the other person made her wait in the hot sun for ten minutes and complimenting her after her victory and even saying they’re good pals, and for sure “we’ll talk.”

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.