If it’s not against the rules, should they be criticized for it?
That’s sort of the dilemma with a potentially “strategic” medical timeout.
Eighteen-year-old Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine may well have had a knee issue during her singles final against Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia.
But an ideally-timed medical timeout contributed in no small part to the win, and her second career WTA Tour title.
Yastremska had just been broken – a second break against serve in the third set – after a game lasting more than six minutes. She saved three break points from love-40, but hit her 13th double fault of the match on Tomljanovic’s fourth break-point opportunity.
The teen was down 2-5 in the third set. And after the changeover, Tomljanovic was to serve for the match.
Despite having chased down a lot of balls in impressive fashion during that game, Yastremska called for the trainer.
Trainer to the court
Tomljanovic was not impressed.
She asked chair umpire Jenny Zhang if she had asked Yastremska what the issue was. “No, she didn’t tell me,” Zhang replied.
“Every umpire is supposed to ask a player … I always get asked,” Tomljanovic replied.
“I cannot deny her,” Zhang said.
Tomljanovic’s boyfriend, Nick Kyrgios, was equally unimpressed.
In fact, there is little in the WTA rules about what the chair umpire is supposed to do. If a player stops play in the middle of a game, or not on a changeover, the chair umpire is required to ask her if she can continue. But that’s about as far as it goes.
And so, the trainer came out and basically squeezed Yastremska’s left knee, with a full three-minute timeout.
Tomljanovic did the right things. She went out and practiced her serve. But nearly six minutes had elapsed, on a humid night when Tomljanovic was perspiring profusely, before she could get on with trying to close it out.
At 30-15, she was two points away. She saved a break point at 30-40. And she got all of her first serves in – until the second break point. Yastremska crushed a second-serve return for a winner. And she got one of the breaks back.
She looked just fine. Yastremska he never pulled up on the knee, never touched it, never pointed to it. She just kept running.
With a couple of screaming forehand winners, Yastremska held serve easily to narrow the gap to 4-5. And then the trainer came out again for additional treatment.
It’s all in the mind
By this time, the situation had definitely gotten into Tomljanovic’s head. Self-admittedly, and by reputation, the Aussie can get negative and has often had trouble closing big matches out.
This was her fourth career final – two came in 2018, in Rabat and Seoul. And she’d been 0-for-3 so far.
Conversely, Yastremska has already developed a bit of a reputation about the medical timeouts.
With a second chance to serve it out, Tomljanovic failed to get a first serve except for once, at 15-40. At 30-40, on the second break point … she double-faulted.
Three Tomljanovic unforced errors later, Yastremska held serve, and was up 6-5.
The trainer returned for another visit.
Tiebreak time for Yastremska and Tomljanovic
Fighting to stay in the match now – a crazy reversal from 20 minutes prior – Tomljanovic held … at love.
Of course she did.
And so, the match went to a deciding tiebreak.
The Aussie was up a mini-break early, at 2-0. A 2-2, Yastremska ran for a drop shot like a gazelle, even though she ended up losing the point.
At 3-3, they changed ends – with a little “help” from Yastremska’s father.
On the next point, Tomljanovic hit a wild double fault, nowhere near the court.
And that was it.
Tomljanovic a gracious runner-up
The handshake was brief, but courteous as Tomljanovic crossed over to the other side, during the time it took for Yastremska to celebrate.
The Aussie gave her opponent a nod. It was no drive-by; neither was it a love-in.
The trophy ceremonies must have seemed endless for Tomljanovic, denied in her fourth consecutive final.
If her smiles for the cameras were faint, her smiles for the various dignitaries presenting her with mascots, garlands and whatnot were more than legit.
She made no mention of her opponent, but praised the tournament.
“I’m really happy that I made it to Thailand and played this week. This is one of the nicest tournaments I’ve been to so far. Lots of players who lost stayed extra days, which doesn’t usually happen,” she said.
Yastremska and the “mom” treatment
(It’s not a trophy ceremony unless your little sister and dad are on court iPhoning the proceedings).
With all the insouciance of her 18 years, Yastremska reminded the 25-year-old Tomljanovic of just how long she’s been around.
“First to congratulate for the finals, always tough to play with you, you’re such a great player,” Yastremska said. “When I was small, I’ve been looking to you, like, really, if you remember, I talked with you in Australia for the first time, and I was always trying to play same like you.”
It elicited the first genuine smiles of the evening from her “ancient” opponent.
And then, Yastremska got emotional as she briefly told the story of the accident her mother sustained in Australia (more on that in the link at the bottom of the post).
“Small accident with my mother. She got an operation and went back to Ukraine, so it was really tough to play here,” Yastremska said. “This win is for my mother.”
And then, impressively poised, she asked to say a few words in her native language.
Injury, or gamesmanship?
The bottom line on injury timeouts is that the chair umpire has to err on the side of assuming the player is being straight up.
And it’s essentially the same for the physio.
Imagine the potential fallout if a physio came on court, determined that the player wasn’t extremely injured™, an MTO was refused, and the player ended up exacerbating an injury and missing significant time on Tour. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The only leeway the chair umpire has is in the case of a toilet break.
As it is, at the Australian Open, the new rule kicked in that the women were only allowed one toilet break per match. Given the brutal weather conditions some days, that was downright cruel at times. Players were advised they could change their tops (and bottoms) on court if they needed to.
The idea was to cut down on the strategic toilet breaks. But it created other issues.
The 10-minute WTA highlight reel of this match, of course, doesn’t have a single clip of any of the medical attention.
The ATP slightly more strict
The men’s Tour gives the chair umpires a little more jurisdiction in this area.
All’s fair … in love and tennis
The bottom line, of course, is that Tomljanovic was up two breaks of serve.
So she should have been able to close out one of her two opportunities to serve it out, and finally win her first career WTA Tour title.
But the timing of the medical timeout definitely gave her a lot of extra time to overthink it.
Yastremska certainly made it look legit, with the two subsequent changeover treatments. But she never exhibited a single sign of a knee problem – or any problem – as she defended fabulously during the last part of the match.
The other issue to consider is that in that third set, Tomljanovic was going to be serving after every changeover. There wasn’t an opportunity, if Yastremska needed treatment, to do it before her own serve – unless she stopped play when it wasn’t a changeover.
And for that to pass the smell test, she would have had to have “developed an acute, treatable medical condition necessitating an immediate stop in play”. Or she could have been assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
So clearly this didn’t rise to the level of that.
But whenever this happens, it always raises eyebrows.
We’ll see if Yastremska’s knee is feeling tip top, as she’s scheduled to represent Ukraine in Fed Cup this week.