Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Gamesmanship part of game

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Victoria Azarenka being treated courtside at Melbourne on Thursday. Photo / AP
Victoria Azarenka being treated courtside at Melbourne on Thursday. Photo / AP

There's little point in continuing to condemn Victoria Azarenka for her suspicious time out in the Australian Open semifinal against American Sloane Stephens.

But there's a lot to be said for giving her a raspberry.

It may be morally reprehensible and Azarenka could lose a great deal of public support, not something any sponsor-conscious tennis player should take lightly. But it's not illegal and the worst anyone could say about it was US Davis Cup boss and ESPN's tennis analyst Patrick McEnroe's quote that it was "a travesty".

Think, too, of the myriad times players in many sporting codes have faked an injury. In rugby, think of the prop who goes down for treatment while, in the background, his team-mate who lost his boot busily restores it. In football, think of the tackled player who goes down as if machine-gunned and who rolls theatrically in the hope of getting the opponent yellow-carded or even sent off.

Gamesmanship to put an opponent off his or her stroke has been around since Adam was a pup. Like it or not, it is part of the game - whatever game that is - because it is so difficult to rule definitively at the time whether the injury or the gambit is real or not. Player safety has to be respected and officials have to take that into account.

Which is not to say it should be overlooked.

Azarenka's big mistake came in an interview, after she had frittered away five match points.

"Well, I almost did the choke of the year. At 5-3, having so many chances, I couldn't close it out," said Azarenka, who won 6-1 6-4 to advance to last night's final against Li Na of China (as this edition went to press). "I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realised I'm one step away from the final and nerves got into me for sure."

Nerves, while highly inconvenient, are not a reason for a medical time out, under tennis' rules. Azarenka later changed her story in a charm offensive, saying both time outs (she called the trainer in for a second time, pleading a knee injury) were real. The first, she said, happened earlier but she tried to play through the pain: "I should have, you know, called the trainer a little bit earlier before that when I got to the point that I couldn't really breathe and had to go off court. A rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical time out."

She also said she misunderstood the question in her on-court interview: "I just really misunderstood what she asked me because the question was I had few difficulties and why I went off. I completely thought of a different thing, why I couldn't close out of match, you know, that I had few difficulties."

Whatever your take on this there are two points to make. First, professionals in any sport have to be able to move past gamesmanship from opponents.

Take Roger Federer in the tough, five-set loss to Andy Murray early yesterday morning. He apparently swore at Murray over the net and lipreaders are divided on what he said but united on the fact there was a bad word beginning with F. Murray smirked but, regardless of who was the initiator, Federer cut a clearly more rattled figure than did the increasingly composed Murray. They closed down discussion of the matter later and Stephens also decided against using the time outs as an excuse for her loss - though her coach called it "cheating within the rules".

The second point is that, in Australia, talkback lines, internet chat, blogs and emails, tweets and facebook entries blazed with indignation - enough so that Azarenka would have been perhaps the most unpopular Open champion in history.

Rightly or wrongly, many fans decided Azarenka pulled a fast one, that she might have lost the second set if she'd not gone off court. Last night, before the final, many were expecting her to have to play in front of centre court's united disapproval.

Which is how it should be. Fans still have some power to guard against this kind of thing. Any player who puts himself or herself in a situation where "cheating within the rules" is suspected should expect to cop it where it hurts - in terms of their image, their appeal to sponsors and the way they are viewed within tennis.

Win by all means. But win at all costs? See what that does to how you are seen within the game. Bush law, as it used to be called in Australia, and the power of fans still have impact.

- Herald on Sunday

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