Tennis — it is not a secret — makes itself hard to love on many occasions. This does not make tennis unique among all sports. Plenty of other sports elicit a love-hate relationship in fans. Tennis does stand out, however, in the ways in which it creates controversy.
Requesting medical attention exists as a problem in tennis. The sport still struggles to create standards which can prevent players from using the medical timeout (MTO) as a psychological tool and/or a rest break to interrupt the momentum of an in-form opponent. Other sports generally don’t have this problem. There might be a very specific exception, but broadly viewed, it is not a recurring issue. International football has had problems with faked injuries as time-wasting devices, but not centrally as ploys to interrupt an opponent’s progress. Feigned injuries can also be used to bait referees into making foul calls, but again, that’s not the same thing as interrupting an opponent’s run of good form.
We saw this yet again in the Doha final on Saturday, when Elise Mertens took an MTO early in the second set when she was down a set. Halep then took her own timeout after Mertens won the second set. Halep fans were quite reasonably upset that Mertens took her MTO. No one likes these medical timeouts as currently constructed and allowed. However, it is simply accepted on tour that if an opponent takes an MTO, you have to be ready and able to handle the delay and finish the match, preventing the opponent from changing the outcome.
No one has to like what Mertens did, but she fully earned her championship at the Qatar Open. She had to play a lot of quality tennis in the second and third sets to overcome Halep.
Another longstanding problem in tennis that you don’t frequently see in other sports: Two semifinals being played several hours apart, the day before a final. Basketball tournaments involve games on consecutive days, and semifinals at basketball tournaments are played one after the other, in the same session in the same arena. Baseball tournaments at American universities are played in a round-robin format, such that unequal periods of rest don’t emerge as factors for teams in equivalent positions. (Unequal rest can exist, but only because one team won more games than another team, which represents a merit-based advantage.)
Tennis, though, has plenty of situations throughout each season in which semifinals are played several hours apart — one in a day session, one in an evening or night session — before the two winners meet in the final the next day. This happened in Rotterdam, with day-semifinal winner Gael Monfils defeating night-semifinal winner Stan Wawrinka in three sets.
No, this isn’t the main reason Gael won and Stan lost. Tennis players know that playing a day match after a night match is part of life on tour, especially when moving from Saturday to Sunday. Gael was legitimately better than Stan. The main story is that he was the better tennis player in Rotterdam. Nevertheless, one can quietly note that if the two semifinals had been played consecutively, none of us would be talking or wondering about the progression of Sunday’s final.
MTOs and split-session semifinals are horrible, but they exist and are part of the landscape of tennis. We can all mention them, and we can all be upset at them — we should be — but we should not allow these flaws to make us think that a winning player didn’t deserve to win. We can appreciate quality tennis, give due respect to the winners, and put those thoughts in a separate compartment. Then we can discuss the larger issues tennis fails to solve.
Give credit here. Criticize there.
There’s a difference between a flaw of tennis (MTOs or scheduling) affecting a match to some degree, and that same flaw DECIDING THE OUTCOME, centrally determining who won and lost. There can be instances in which outside factors decide an outcome, but they have to occur in high-leverage situations. They are extremely rare.
What we saw this past weekend were commonplace occurrences in Doha and Rotterdam. Do they leave a bad taste in one’s mouth? Yes. However, they didn’t determine who won and lost. They carried a small but real degree of influence, but nothing profound enough to deprive one player of victory and hand it to another.
Tennis is a difficult lover, I know. Yet, these two championship matches were entertaining and interesting. What is good outweighed what is bad.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the things that are bad. It does, however, mean we can give credit to two fully-deserving champions.