Australian Open 2013: Victoria Azarenka Shouldn't Be Criticized for Timeout

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2013

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24:  Victoria Azarenka of Belarus receives medical attention in her Semifinal match against Sloane Stephens of the United States during day eleven of the 2013 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Victoria Azarenka gamed the system in her win over Sloane Stephens in the 2013 Australian Open semifinals.

As most tennis fans know, after surrendering five match points, the top-seeded Azarenka took a 10-minute injury timeout. She came back to eventually win the match, 6-4, 6-1, and advance to the final against Li Na.

Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian sums up the controversy well. Azarenka's official explanation was that she couldn't breathe and that a rib had to be shifted as it was causing her a problem in her back. Mitchell writes:

However, in the on-court television interview immediately after the match, the former British player Sam Smith asked her specifically why she had left the court and she prevaricated. With a restless crowd still buzzing about the incident, she said: "I had nearly the worst choke of the year." She spoke of "anxiety" but did not mention a sore rib or being unable to breathe.

As a result, Shane Bacon of Busted Racket headlined his article about the match "The day Azarenka cheated tennis."

That's an extremely harsh statement to make.

Patrick McEnroe of ESPN has perhaps the best attitude about this situation. He spoke about how Azarenka's move was "bush league" but the issue shouldn't necessarily be taken with her, rather the sport's rules.

As McEnroe said, what Azarenka did was completely within the rules. If the rules allow her to take a 10-minute break at a critical juncture of the match like that, then maybe the governing body of tennis shouldn't sit on its hands and do something about it.

Azarenka wasn't the first to use this move, and unless the rule changes, she won't be the last.

Was it exactly a sporting move to take an injury timeout under false pretenses? No. But since when were professional athletes the bastions of fair play?

Athletes in all sports have been gaming the system for decades in various ways.

Bacon's headline is completely ridiculous because it's not as if she actually cheated. The rules aren't explicit enough as to why and how long injury timeouts are taken, and Azarenka exploited the loophole.

She's a competitor. She didn't get to be the No. 1 seed by simply being a nice person. Fans expect professional athletes to be nice all the time and never once try to bend the rules in order to benefit themselves.

In order to be the best, you have to be a ruthless competitor at times, and that's what Azarenka showed last night.

It's not as if that timeout changed the entire match. Sure Azarenka was struggling, but she had earned her lead up to that point.

She didn't get lucky, dropping only one game to Stephens in the first set and earning that many match points in the second set.

Azarenka almost certainly would have won that match—timeout or no timeout. Stephens kept on fighting and didn't give up, and for that she deserves plenty of credit. However, she was the second-best player on that court.

If fans are that up in arms, perhaps they should fault Stephens for losing the first set and getting into a hole in the second.

Azarenka deserves plenty of unsavory labels as a result of this affair, but the one thing she shouldn't be labeled as is a cheater.