It’s normally customary to wait until after the match to call out an opponent for a suspected alternative use of a medical time out. Ajla Tomljanovic could not wait that long.
Tomljanovic was furious that 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko called the trainer when she was trailing 4-0 in the final set of their third-round match at Wimbledon.
"You know she's lying, right? We all know," the 28-year-old told the chair umpire. "Are you taking into any consideration that she looked fine?"
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Ostapenko was allowed to leave the court to get checked out and the match was delayed by over 10 minutes before it resumed and Tomljanovic clinched victory. There was an angry exchange at the net after the final point and Tomljanovic reasserted her claim in her post-match press conference that she didn’t believe Ostapenko had a medical problem.
"She can say she was injured. I don't think she was. There was nothing wrong with her the whole match, but then why on 4-0 she calls it? So I think that that's a clear reason that she just wanted to get me off my game. The fact that she did it at 4-0 today when I was about to serve, that's disrespectful. I'm just honestly tired of it. I'm tired of it happening and seeing it happen. We can do better than that."
The incident again raised the issue of players using medical time outs as a ploy to try and change the momentum of a match. Tomljanovic has seen it happen before; in the Thailand Open final in 2019 her opponent Dayana Yastremska called a MTO down 5-2 in the decider. When the match resumed Yastremska won four straight games and then secured the title in a tie-breaker. Nick Kyrgios, who has previously dated Tomljanovic, made his feelings on the MTO clear on Twitter: “That medical was trash.”
Tomljanovic also expressed her unhappiness with the umpire during the match, but the fact remains that Yastremska did nothing against the rules. Nor did Ostapenko.
The International Tennis Federation rules for Grand Slams state that: “A Medical Time-Out is allowed by the Referee in consultation with the Grand Slam Supervisor or Chair Umpire when the Sports Physiotherapist has evaluated the player and has determined that additional time for medical treatment is required. The Medical Time-Out takes place during a change over or set break, unless the Sports Physiotherapist determines that the player has developed an acute medical condition that requires immediate medical treatment.”
A medical time out is limited to three minutes – not including the time it takes for the physio to get to the court or walking with the player off and back on the court if they wanted to be treated in private. Medical time outs are not allowed for “general player fatigue” or for cramping, and players are allowed one MTO per match for “each distinct treatable medical condition”.
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Players are playing by the rules, even if it seems clear that medical time outs are also used for strategic purposes. Roger Federer effectively admitted as much when he took an MTO at the end of the fourth set of his Australian Open semi-final against Stan Wawrinka in 2017.
"These injury timeouts, I think they're more mental than anything else," he said. "For the first time maybe during a match you can actually talk to someone, even if it's just a physio.”
Federer had lost the last two sets but won the fifth after the MTO.
"I only really did take the timeout because I thought, 'He took one already, maybe I can take one for a change'. Because I'm not a believer in any way that we should be allowed to take a lot of timeouts. But I took it after the set break. People know I don't abuse the system. I hope it's going to stay that way in the future for me, too."
Federer has not often employed the MTO as a match-changing tactic, but Novak Djokovic has been criticised for his use of MTOs in the past. In his defeat to Wawrinka in the 2016 US Open final he was slammed for “complete abuse” of the rules by ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe after having his toes taped at 3-1 down in the fourth set. Djokovic also used a MTO to his advantage against Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final in 2020 because he "did not feel good", and Pablo Carreno Busta called him out for it at last year’s French Open.
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"Each time he is in trouble he usually does it, that means to say that he was in trouble, that he wasn't comfortable and that I was playing at a high level and was causing him to doubt himself. Every time a match gets complicated he asks for medical assistance. He has been doing this for a long time.”
Again, Djokovic has not done anything against the rules, but the issue seems to be the rules can be bent and used to a player’s advantage. And there doesn’t appear to be an easy fix.
One potential solution is to give players the option of having a timeout to use during a match for whatever purpose they see fit. They can utilise this at a change of ends – when they are serving next - or between sets, and it does not have to be a medical reason.
Perhaps also the three-minute limit could be shortened, but this runs the risk of a player not having enough time to get properly assessed. The same problem would apply if players were given some sort of penalty for delay during a medical time out. There’s also the option of not allowing medical time outs at latter stages of matches, in the final sets for example, and players having to forfeit matches if they are unable to continue, although this would seem an unsatisfactory conclusion for a Grand Slam semi-final or final for example.
None of the solutions are perfect, and there’s the argument that players who complain should be able to handle the situation better. There are breaks for changes of ends and between sets, so should a MTO really impact a professional player so much? Ashleigh Barty acknowledged an MTO taken by Karolina Muchova was a “massive turning point” in their Australian Open quarter-final earlier this year, but blamed herself for not dealing with it better.
"It's within the rules, she's within her rights to take that time. If she wasn't within the rules, the physios and the doctors would have said so. That's the laws of our game.
“I've taken medical timeouts myself before, so that shouldn't be a massive turning point in the match. I was disappointed that I let that become a turning point. I'm experienced enough now to be able to deal with that.”
While some players find a MTO easier to accept than others – even it seems to be used to help sway the momentum of a match - it doesn’t seem like a change is on the horizon for now.
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