A note to Victoria Azarenka: Choking is only a medical emergency if there's something obstructing your airway, not if you can't close out a tennis match because of nerves.
In her women's singles semifinal match at the 2013 Australian Open against American breakout sensation Sloane Stephens, world No. 1 Azarenka of Belarus was up 6-1, 5-3, and serving for a place in the final on Saturday.
It seemed at 40-15 that the match was inevitably at its end—just one point away. But Stephens continued to fight, and with some amazing play, saved two consecutive match points.
And then a third. Azarenka was becoming visibly disturbed.
A fourth match point saved by Stephens. And finally a fifth. Now Azarenka was pointing gingerly at her chest, her face wrenched.
Then Stephens manufactured a break point, and did what the Belarusian couldn't: converted, with a forehand winner up the line after systematic point construction by the American.
Back on serve at 5-4, and heading to their chairs for the changeover, Queen Victoria called for the trainer. After a couple of minutes of poking and prodding by medical personnel, she and the trainers went off the court.
So the 19-year-old Stephens waited. And the crowd waited. And the fans at home waited. It wasn't for another 10 minutes that she returned to play. Ten minutes.
And, boy, did she play. In a confusing turn of events, and after not knowing what had occurred in the clandestine locker rooms inside the Rod Laver Arena stadium, Azarenka immediately broke the young American to win the match and advance to the Aussie Open finals, where she'll face world No. 6 Li Na of China on Saturday night.
Disappointingly, the bold and refreshing Li Na won't get all the attention she deserves for making her second final in three years Down Under because of this debacle. Not even close.
There's a simple reason why this is all so problematic. Sure, the idea that Azarenka suffered from an acute medical condition so severe that it was making her feel like she couldn't breathe is concerning at first. But the subsequent notion that such a serious problem could be solved in 10 minutes, let alone that she could be playing an extremely physically demanding sport like tennis immediately after the fact, is beyond me.
To put the cherry on top, Vika was quoted after the match as saying, "I almost did the choke of the year." She further went on to explain that no matter what she did on the court, she couldn't finish the match and put Stephens away, which made her panic.
Stop right there, Victoria. You're admitting to the fact that you were choking?
We can obviously infer from her words then that her medical timeout was a ploy to gather herself, right?
We know how seeding works. We understand that she was the favorite to win this match over the 29th seeded Stephens, that this was a hugely pressure-inducing semifinal encounter in a Grand Slam, and we get that she's one of the best players on the WTA Tour.
We also know that medical issues or emergencies require instant attention and care. But we're not a naive enough band of fans to really believe that Azarenka supposedly got her rib and left knee worked on and came back to the court for the better so quickly and quietly.
Of particular note were her comments in the press conference following the match, where she stated that she only officially received one injury timeout—equivalent to a three-minute break in play rather than the 10 minutes she actually received—and afterwards blamed the trainer for taking too long (there are too many gems in that particular press conference to list them all here, so please feel free to refer to the link).
Tennis fans have seen this before: breaking an opponent's momentum when they've worked their way back into a match. It's a low-grade brand of gamesmanship, even if it's within current game rules—well, here's to hoping that changes soon. It represents a lack of spirit and candor for the sport of tennis that has given the players who do it every day for a living so much.
And in its most direct injustice, it's demeaning to Sloane Stephens, who in defeat was nothing but gracious and humble.
The situation ultimately begs the question: what can tennis officials do to quell players feigning or exaggerating injury in order to gain a mental advantage over their opponents? The answer so far is not much.
The rules must allow for some kind of emergency injury timeout (one that doesn't take place before a player's own service because it is not always convenient health-wise), as it isn't uncommon for professional athletes to regularly strain or wound their bodies in a worrisome enough manner to require medical treatment. Bringing an end to falsifying injury for psychological gain is multi-faceted and it will more than likely be a long time before any reasonable conclusion is met.
Other forms of gamesmanship, such as obscene grunting—both Azarenka and Maria Sharapova shriek loudly after hitting every single ball—and extended bathroom breaks, have also been called into question, and again without success.
Even such stars as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have been challenged and examined for their pre-serve rituals, with some suggesting that their habits were designed to keep opponents out of rhythm (though this issue is largely null and void as a result of stronger enforcement of the 20-second service rule).
Former tennis players and current analysts of the game, Patrick McEnroe and Mary-Jo Fernandez, summed up well the problems surrounding these issues and the resulting limited capacity of tennis officials to find solutions.
It's a disturbing reality that fans of tennis must live with; are some of our greatest idols and athletic heroes effectively lying to our faces?
At any rate, it's moments like Azarenka's outrageous timeout that detract from the beauty of a sport like tennis, where men and women duke it out, mano-a-mano, in the most elegant and consuming form of sporting contention many of us will ever see, whereby at the end of the match the players come to the net and embrace one another in a show of all-encompassing sportsmanship.
That's what makes tennis so highly esteemed, so admirable. That embrace. Like keeping alive the memory of something long since past but forever hallowed; that's why tennis fans strive so hard to defend it, preserve it and nurture it—the sport we adore.
It's that embrace at the net that symbolizes everything right about tennis.
Its role models.
Its ability to let us see past mere sport and recognize the importance of honor and integrity.
And it's acts like Azarenka's that make that embrace count for naught. The Women's Singles final at the 2013 Australian Open has been irreversibly tainted.
Sadly, it's now plain to see that Victoria Azarenka doesn't understand the importance of these values one iota.
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