Suppose you are an avid professional tennis watcher. In that case, you may have noticed that when a player gets injured, they call for a medical timeout. It’s no surprise that with the intense physical stress put on players, their bodies can eventually break down, so the medical timeout was introduced.
A medical timeout is an opportunity for a player to receive treatment in the event of an injury or illness. A timeout consists of an evaluation and treatment. The total medical timeout should not exceed 15 minutes, including 3 minutes for treatment. If the time is exceeded, the player may be penalized.
While the medical timeout was implemented with the players’ health in mind, there has been some controversy surrounding the medical timeout. Let us go over the rules, the controversies, and the future of the medic timeout in tennis.
A medical timeout occurs when a player has sustained an injury during the course of a match or even in the warm-up.
The player has to ask the chair umpire who is officiating their match to see the physiotherapist.
From there, the physiotherapist comes out to assess the player.
If it is determined that the injury or illness needs immediate treatment, then a medical timeout is allowed.
So, what happens in a medical timeout in tennis?
In order for a medical timeout to be called during a tennis match, a player has to ask the chair umpire to call for the physiotherapist.
This can be done during the warm-up or match.
The physiotherapist then comes onto the court when there is a change of ends or set break.
The medical evaluation is where the physiotherapist decides whether a medical timeout is necessary.
Once this decision is made, then it is up to the tournament supervisor or chair umpire to allow it.
Like the medical evaluation, the medical timeout occurs between the change of ends or during a set break, unless it is an acute injury like a sudden illness or musculoskeletal injury (e.g., sprains, muscle, and ligament tears) that needs immediate attention.
Tennis is a sport that demands a lot from a player, both physically and mentally. Because it is an individual sport, a player gets little rest to recover between points, this can cause injuries. To ensure that players can keep up physically, there is a medical timeout in tennis.
Medical timeouts seem to be unique to the sport of tennis. But tennis, in itself, is unique, being an entirely individual sport and the way the match is played.
A tennis match has no time limit, no timer counting down to the end of a game or a set - as we’ve seen, tennis matches can go on for hours, and in rare cases, even days.
Other sports have time constraints between quarters and halves, like football, soccer, and hockey.
These other sports also have full rosters to pull from when they need to substitute players when injuries and illnesses happen on the field.
For example, American football teams carry 53 players. For soccer teams, the number of players a team can have varies worldwide.
Even when they have a doubles partner, a tennis player doesn’t have a substitute for jumping in and playing for them when they’re injured.
So, we can see the issue arising: how and why the medical tennis timeout came to be and why it seems to be unique to the rest of the sports world.
The medical timeout is a very useful feature for players and quite unique in the sports world.
Of course, to manage the use of the medical timeout, there are a lot of rules to keep in mind.
Rules of the Medical Timeout according to the 2021 International Tennis Federation Rulebook:
How long is a medical timeout in tennis?
Each medical timeout is only three minutes long. Some wiggle room is allowed depending on the leniency of the chair umpire and the type of tournament the player is playing in. The maximum time allowed for the evaluation and timeout is fifteen minutes.
When may a tennis player call a medical timeout?
A player can call for a medical timeout during any point of the match. Still, the evaluation and timeout will not occur until a set break or a change of ends during a set. If the injury is severe, the chair umpire will halt play. The physiotherapist will be sent out to care for the injured player without delay.
How many timeouts are there in tennis?
A player is only allowed to receive one timeout for each separate injury, with a max of two throughout the entirety of the match.
One would think that with the huge entourages that players travel with throughout the year that they would be allowed to have their own physiotherapist or doctor on the court with them when an injury or illness arises.
But the governing body of tennis, the International Tennis Federation, decided against this idea.
They believed it would present a chance of illegal coaching if a personal member of a player’s team went on court with them.
Each tournament employs a team of doctors and physiotherapists to treat players during on-court play, with the number of doctors and physios employed varying based on the scale of the tournament.
With this team of medical professionals, a player faking an injury to gain some facetime with a member of their team no longer poses any risk.
There have been many controversies when medical timeouts are called during matches. The rules are a bit vague and can easily be manipulated.
Many players have found ways to bend or break the medical timeout rules without any real consequence.
The rules are pretty general in terms of what constitutes an injury. Chair umpires and tournament directors never enforce some parts of the rules.
The most obvious way a player can bend or break the rules is by faking or even exaggerating an injury.
This can be a way for a player to have some time to recover or stall the momentum of a match that isn’t going their way.
It’s difficult to really know who is faking an injury and who isn’t - but there have been some players who use medical timeouts more than others and when the match isn’t entirely in their favor.
Which players are accused of abusing a medical timeout?
A lot of criticism has been given to Novak Djokovic for his use of medical timeouts.
Many players and analysts of the game say he requests timeouts whenever his opponent puts him under pressure.
Many called it game tactics, a way to get into his opponent’s head and see the momentum in his favor.
When Djokovic first turned pro, he had a reputation for physically breaking down during his matches and had a very long list of retirements.
But it has been widely reported and obvious that Djokovic fixed many of his issues leading up to his domination of the sport in 2010.
However, he still uses medical timeouts when he seemingly doesn’t need them. He even tends to play better afterward, so he receives tons of criticism on this point.
Novak Djokovic isn’t the only pro-level player who has been criticized for this.
Others like Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka, and more have been criticized for their use, overuse, and possible abuse of medical timeouts.
But alas, they are all following the rules laid out by the tennis governing body.
So until the rules are changed, and abuse is dealt with more severely, little can be done about it.
There have been loads of controversy surrounding medical timeouts.
It’s hard to really tell who has a real injury and who doesn’t since so many injuries can easily be faked or exaggerated.
Medical timeouts tend to be overused by some players when the match doesn’t seem to be going their way, and some even play better after their medical timeout.
Many spectators, commentators, journalists, and tennis analysts have described the medical time out as legal cheating.
However, it’s tough to actually accuse a player of cheating.
The official medical timeouts rules are even under some fire due to their flexible and vague nature.
The expression of pain is very subjective - so what may look like someone is faking it, they may actually be feeling very intense pain from their injury.
That’s why it can be hard to differentiate between who is being honest and who isn’t.
Some people believe that medical timeouts shouldn’t be allowed, but that comes off as unnecessarily mean and inhumane.
However, the only thing that really can change is the rules that define what is and isn’t an injury and what can and can’t be treated within the scope and time of a medical timeout.
There are nuances to some rules of tennis, medical timeouts being a huge one that has been in the spotlight over the last decade or so.
But one clear thing is that tennis is a sport that needs medical timeouts due to its unique, individualistic nature.