Unsportsmanlike or Unladylike: Azarenka and the Media
In June, 2011, I wrote a blog post about Rafael Nadal’s untimely medical time outs (MTOs). My article came on the back of Nadal receiving a nine minute medical time out before a tiebreak against an in-form Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon. Nadal complained that he felt his foot was broken, before proceeding to run his way to a four set victory. Del Potro was, understandably, annoyed. “He was running everywhere and running the same as always. I never thought he’d stop,” he complained. I chose to write about this incident because it was far from the first time Nadal had called for a MTO in important moments. Philipp Petzschner is a player who would sympathise with del Potro. Leading by two sets to one at the same tournament one year earlier, Nadal called a MTO before the Petzschner serve. Petzschner lost his serve, and ultimately, the match.
Nadal was questioned by the media on both of these occasions, and each time he denied any wrong-doing and insisted his injuries were legitimate. The media, apparently satisfied, moved on with more mundane questions. Nadal and other ATP players who have on occasion used what could be considered cheating, (at the very least bending the rules), have had their explanations accepted by journalists. Fans who speak out are accused of being sore-losers, or haters of the player in question.
This was the way of tennis – sometimes players bent the MTO rules, sometimes fans complained – until recently. When Victoria Azarenka took a MTO while leading Sloane Stephens by a set and 5-4, she was positively crucified in the press room. Azarenka had come back from a ten minute off-court MTO to break Stephens, and therefore win the match. The Belarussian hadn’t helped matters by admitting she was ‘nervous’ in her post-match interview, but she explained to press that the reason she left the court was for a locked rib for which she had to remove her dress. She then apologised for the misunderstanding and ill-timing. Her explanation, however, didn’t satisfy journalists hungry for a controversial story, and the questions kept coming at machine-gun intensity. Among others, Azarenka was asked the following questions:
- Can you understand that people perceive that as being gamesmanship at that particular point in the game?
- Would you agree the timing was unfortunate?
- What treatment did you have?
- In your previous answers, you attributed the not being able to breathe being pretty much directly to not converting the five match points in the game before. You said you had to take some time to get your mind together when you were going off court. This seems like a very different answer that you’re giving now.
- Do you have any sympathy for Sloane, who had to sit there for 10 minutes waiting to serve to stay in the match?
- So in hindsight, do you think you owe an apology to Sloane just for the timing of it, the medical timeout?
- Do you think some players are abusing this rule, not yourself, but other players use it as a stalling tactic sometimes that you’ve experienced?
In total, Azarenka was asked 23 questions related to her MTO. She was asked four questions not related to the injury. Never before had any player being given such a drilling in the interview over a MTO. Azarenka must have walked out of that interview room hoping she had weathered much of the storm. However, headlines the following day proved the media were far from done. Rather than focusing on Azarenka’s dominant position as the World Number 1, or Stephen’s break-through as a young American to watch, media worldwide accused Azarenka of being a cheat and a poor sportswoman.
While Azarenka began a series of interviews to try to halt the negativity, certain journalists were still tapping away at their laptops, the keys sounding their emphatic disapproval. From her semi-final all the way through to after her Australian Open victory, Azarenka was the target of negative remarks by both media, fellow tennis players and fans. The Australian crowd gobbled up accusations of choking and gamesmanship by local papers, and jeered and heckled Azarenka in her final against Li Na. Australia’s dislike of Azarenka still hasn’t stopped. As recently as three days ago, Melbourne’s The Age published a letter where the writer admitted he had always been disgusted by the likes of John McEnroe’s behaviour, but he was surprised and disappointed that women had now sunk to those standards. As if foul-play by the ‘fairer sex’ was worse than anything McEnroe could ever have said or done.
It was the journalists that sparked the complaining among fans, and certain journalists took their criticism to a whole new level. Dark words spewed forth from those media caves under Rod Laver Arena, attacking Azarenka not only for her MTO, but for her clothing, grunting, personality and earphones. Journalists used Twitter and their websites to compare her in a disparaging way to ATP players. Neil Harman of The Times displayed his selective memory when he tweeted that he can’t remember Federer, Nadal or Murray ever using a MTO or bathroom break to their advantage. While most journalists called for tougher MTO rules or ventured as far to call Azarenka a cheat, the ink on others’ pages reeked of sexism.
Bruce Jenkins of SI.com started off his article by comparing Azarenka unfavourably to Djokovic, waxing lyrical about the Serbian’s extroverted personality and easy way with fans and media. He pointed to Azarenka’s hoodie and earbuds in contrast to Djokovic’s on-court jokes, stating that Azarenka ‘wished she were invisible.’ Despite hoodies and earbuds being wardrobe staples of youth worldwide, apparently Jenkins is living in an age where we still associate these items of clothing with shady personalities. Why else bring up what she’s wearing? Of course, Jenkins would probably not have complained had she turned up in a short dress minus the Dr Dre earbuds, looking a little more like Maria Kirilenko and a little less like herself. Speaking of earplugs, Richard Hinds of The Sydney Morning Herald created possibly the most offensive article, comparing Azarenka directly with a prostitute when he wrote, “Why pay for a sensory experience you can get for nothing standing outside an open brothel window?’ He went on to ‘joke’ that Azarenka had used her MTO to see a psychiatrist to cure her ‘fragile mind.’ He didn’t stop with Azarenka; Redfoo was described with disdain, and Maria Sharapova called ‘sour-faced’ (which I am sure she would have used as a Sugarpova marketing opportunity had she heard). Hinds ended his article by saying that the Federer/Murray match would be good value for money, just as he had started it by saying the women’s final was not.
For writers such as Jenkins, Azarenka’s MTO was simply another thing to dislike about the World No. 1. Jenkins wrote in 2011 that ‘there’s nothing particularly special about Azarenka’s game… as such, fans would prefer a touch of elegance or class.’ Jenkins went on to describe Azarenka as a racket-smashing brat with a boring game and grumpy attitude. You can almost hear him sighing through the page as he writes, ‘it is not becoming.’ In comparison, Peter Bodo of tennis.com almost came across as complimentary when he wrote in 2012 that Azarenka is impatient, blunt, impetuous and ‘not entirely sunny-dispositioned.’
Judging by the lack of sympathy Azarenka was given, it is clear the some members of the media have never particularly warmed to her. Unlike Rafael Nadal, who is loved my fans and media alike, the Belarussian’s explanation for her MTO was rejected as false. But was this really about fair play, or were writers like Jenkins simply using it as an excuse to express their dislike of Azarenka? If the issue was really about the MTO, the same treatment would have been given to Rafael Nadal, or to Roger Federer when he admitted to taking a bathroom break to allow the sun to move across the court when losing to Nikolay Davydenko some years back. By discussing Azarenka’s clothes, her earphones, her personality and her grunting, journalists and fans gave their game away. The issue was never that Azarenka’s behaviour was unsportsmanlike, it was that it was unladylike.
Despite her long blonde hair and shapely legs, Azarenka refuses to play the role of the giggly girl; she won’t play cute to the public, won’t hide her fierce competitive spirit underneath an Ana Ivanovic smile, and she won’t adopt a ladylike celebration instead of poking her tongue out or shoving her finger in the air. Much like Maria Sharapova, who was once dubbed the ice-queen and frownded upon for her I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, Azarenka has so far refused to present herself as anything other than who she is. Whether she eventually hides her true self to escape the wrath of those keyboard warriors remains to be seen. But perhaps Azarenka will stay as she is, and one day raise her middle finger to those who believe her attitude and dress-sense is ‘unbecoming’ for a lady. It may not be a move suited to the press room, but it would be an inspiration to independent women everywhere. I, for one, would be among her most vocal supporters.