Thursday, June 20, 2013

WTA Needs to React to Bathroom Breaks

By Mert Ertunga

It's time once again for me to gripe about something that I have been criticizing on and off, literally for over a decade. I know it has at least been that long, because I remember writing an article back in 2002 on how annoying the bathroom breaks were in the finals of that year's Australian Open Women's finals between Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati.

They were annoying because it was so obvious that their only purpose was to disrupt the opponent's flow. It was Hingis getting an injury timeout when she was behind, and then it was Capriati taking a bathroom break when Hingis won the set, and then vice-versa, etc.

Since then in the women's game this has become a common tactic, unfortunately going unchallenged, because nobody wants to be the first "bad person" to say something about it. I noticed how awful it had gotten when I saw several players in a Challenger few years ago that at least half of the players were taking bathroom breaks after losing a set (never after winning one). In one particular challenger in Belgium last fall, seven out of the eight quarterfinalists took bathroom breaks at the end of the sets they lost!

Then came the moment in the Australian Open this year when Azarenka got unintentionally "too honest" on the microphone after her win against Sloane Stephens and said that she took a bathroom break at 6-1 5-4, right when Sloane was mounting a remarkable comeback, because she "could not breath" — which basically meant she was getting nervous and needed to calm down. It's not exactly an ethical excuse for a medical timeout of 10 minutes.

WTA and Azarenka did not wait too long to realize the gravity of that error. Patrick McEnroe and Pam Shriver were the first ones to jump on the "slam Azarenka" train. Personally, I thought that showed dishonesty since they chose not to say anything for years up to that point because they did not want to "rock the boat." Once they found the opportunity since a player admitted herself — thus giving them the opportunity to hide behind the "she said it, I didn't" as if they did not notice the dimensions of this practice for a long time — they immediately discharged all their carefully-kept thoughts on Azarenka.

As expected, WTA and Azarenka gave their best shot at damage control. Azarenka claimed that she misspoke and that the timeout was for a back injury; the WTA had the trainer explain the nature of the "injury," etc. Nobody in their right mind swallowed these mediocre explanations. Nevertheless, this problem continues to invade the women's game like a plague. Thus I was not surprised to see that on the three junior girls' matches that I have watched on the middle Sunday of the French open tournament, five out of the six players took bathroom breaks after having lost a set!

So should we be surprised when, in the final match of the junior girls draw, the Swiss player Belinda Bencic had to wait on the court after winning her first set 6-1 against the German player Antonia Lottner, because the latter needed a bathroom break? Bencic still won the match 6-1, 6-3. I don't think I am too naive to believe that a large majority of those bathroom breaks, if not all, were taken not because the players had to go, but to regroup themselves, break the opponent's rhythm, or a combination of both.

This is a dirty, unethical tactic, and it has spread deep to the juniors. The Azarenka incident drew some attention to it, due to the magnitude of the occasion and the name-recognition factor, but nobody in the WTA has the guts to do anything about it. I imagine we will have to wait until the matches average one or two bathroom breaks per match (or medical timeouts like Azarenka), each coming after the opponent wins the set, including in the big stages, before WTA feels enough shame to do something about it.

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