Belinda Bencic of Switzerland took home Olympic gold with a three-set win over Czech Marketa Vondrousova, but controversy surrounding medical timeouts once again threatened to overshadow the on-court action.
On serve in the third set, with Bencic leading 4-3 and Vondrousova ready to serve, the Swiss called for and was granted a medical timeout for a blister on her foot. The blister, which could clearly be seen on her right big toe, was a legitimate injury in need of treatment. That’s not the controversy. It’s when Bencic chose to take the timeout.
The rules of tennis clearly state that the game should be played at the server’s pace, so when players take timeouts before their opponents’ serve, it not only undermines the server’s mentality but also one of the foundational rules of tennis.
After Bencic’s timeout, she broke Vondrousova to love, and went on to serve out the match to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. It would perhaps be too much to say that the medical timeout was the only reason that Vondrousova dropped serve. But it would be harder still to argue it was mere coincidence.
Not least because the timing of medical timeouts is clearly becoming more of an issue. An ugly dust-up at Wimbledon last month illustrated the scope of the problem. Jelena Ostapenko called for a medical timeout losing 4-0 in the third set of her third-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic, who accused the Latvian of lying about her injury.
The chair umpire reluctantly granted Ostapenko a medical timeout, despite Tomljanovic complaining that she had not been afforded the same benefit in a match earlier this year, having been told she couldn’t take one before her opponent’s service game. This incident didn’t end up affecting the result, with Tomljanovic closing out the third set 6-2. But it did result in a distracting and protracted delay, as well as a testy confrontation between the players after the match which did the sport few favours.
But there is an easy fix. Simply change the rules so that medical timeouts are only allowed before the injured players’ serve. If the injured player cannot wait that long, they must retire. It’s that simple. A day of glory and happiness for Bencic should not be marred by a controversy over a blister treatment that she clearly needed. But change the rules to clear the air and this particular controversy will disappear just like that.
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