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Unsportsmanlike or Unladylike: Azarenka and the Media

February 7, 2013

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 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 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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2013 3:16 pm

    Brilliant article, so many good points. Journalists complain that so few players have character yet they complain when Azarenka shows her personality

  2. joanarratia permalink
    February 7, 2013 4:13 pm

    So, raise your hand and deny all this is false. Very well put together article.

  3. February 7, 2013 4:19 pm

    Excellent piece. Well reasoned and well written, thanks.

  4. February 7, 2013 4:40 pm

    Such a comprehensive look at the strange different standards and how they are applied to various players. I have to agree that most of the vitriol directed at Vika had been in the making before that particular match. Most of what passes for sports punditry is based on pre-fab narratives and the one on Vika was definitely ready to be plucked out and applied. I’m not a big fan, mostly because I find all that noise off-putting but I do appreciate her competitive spirit. I have to comment that you will never find Neil Harmon remembering anything negative about Nadal or Murray.

  5. February 7, 2013 5:47 pm

    I agree with a lot of what you say here, except for the assertion that the crowd was simply gobbling up what the media was feeding them. Tennis fans aren’t sheep. The applause Azarenka got after she won that semifinal was the quietest and most half-hearted I’ve ever heard in a match that well attended, especially for a slam semi.

    What she did in that match was crappy and unsportsmanlike, and people knew it immediately before the media had a chance to say anything. Do people like Nadal get a free pass for gamesmanship sometimes because of the character’s they’ve established for themselves over the years? Yes, certainly. But that doesn’t excuse what Azarenka did, or her years of unsporting behavior that led to that understandable lack of benefit of doubt.

    • Bob permalink
      February 7, 2013 8:31 pm

      Azarenka is actually one of the sweetest players I’ve met. I hope the media and the public start seeing her true personality and not confuse it with her competitive spirit on court.

    • Independent Women's Club permalink
      February 8, 2013 12:04 am

      “Crappy” and “unsportsmanlike” are value judgments at worst, claims at best–neither are facts. It makes sense that the RLA crowd wasn’t supportive of Azarenka at the moment of her SF victory, given the extremely limited information they had about what the MTO was for and the fact that they, like the media, got to sit and stare at Sloane Stephens for 10 minutes while they speculated. Also, most fans like to see a match go the distance–and they might feel they were deprived of a potential Stephens comeback in this case (though, of course, there’s no guarantee Sloane would have won the next game, never mind the second set, even without the MTO). Sam Smith’s convoluted post-match question, which Azarenka says she misunderstood, didn’t help clear the air.

      None of these rival causes for the crowd’s response does anying to explain the attitude and behavior in the stands two days later, after there had been plenty of clarifying information. Nor does it explain the vitriol spewed via social media or the fact that members of the press, like Jenkins, continued to publish inaccurate & misleading accounts of the SF days after it happened. Confirmation bias has been in evidence all over the place in this controversy, including in B’s comment: people read Azarenka’s actions that day through their preconceived notions of her. Understandable? Maybe. Unfortunate, particularly from members of the media? Absolutely.

      Nice work, Kait.

  6. February 7, 2013 11:46 pm

    Thank you so much for this. Outstanding.

    And to further make your point: The absolute worst sport in the ATP/WTA combined (also a Serbian player) has gotten a pass for every single one of his stunts, and he gets nothing but praise–even when he cries on court 🙂

  7. Sunny nine permalink
    February 8, 2013 5:25 am

    All I can say is, well put-outstanding. My husband and I are still stunned by the situation that occurred at the AO regarding Vika, the media and the crowd. I love Azarenka’s no-nonsense demeanor when playing to win. Vika’s focus and persona on the court should be what we want in an athlete. Or is it just what the media and some fans want in a Male athlete? I have heard commentators talk about MTO’s all the time with regard to the men. These commentators often say that the ATP or whatever, may have to take a second look at the MTO rules, but the commentators are very loose and non-nonchalant when they are talking about it. Not with Vika. They seemed like they were going to have a stroke. I only heard ESPN, but I know they were particularly upset because the situation involved their new golden girl. ( Who by the way handled the whole situation well). I thought their heads were going to explode. A couple of days before the semi, Brad Gilbert said that Vika didn’t play well in the heat (go back to 2009) and therefore maybe Stephens would have a chance. Was he hoping that Azarenka would faint or hurt herself so Stephens could win? Also before the final even began, ESPN went through several clips showing the times when Azarenka retired due to injury or illness. They were already presenting a negative picture of Vika to everyone. They didn’t explain the one where she actually did have a concussion and therefore had to leave. Nor did they talk about how Vika finished a final with a rolled ankle at Doha last year(2012). Anyway, Vika let it go. She must have a wonderful support group and grit and determination herself.
    I will never have respect for the Australian crowd again nor will I watch it unless Vika is in the final and then I will only watch the final. For those who say they mute because of the women’s noise; I mute because of the commentators.

  8. February 8, 2013 6:40 pm

    Well put together piece. The unfairness towards vika was appalling , the media wanted her down and she got even stronger! Loving that attitude.

  9. February 11, 2013 7:26 pm

    There’s a bigger bias at work here. The media and public just aren’t enamored with Vika. In many ways, she’s similar to Maria Sharapova – tall blond, hits the ball, shrieks when hitting. But Vika gets called out on anything slightly questionable that she does, whereas Maria gets away with way more because the media and public seem to easily forgive her for her snide passive-aggressive comments and lack of graciousness.

  10. Boohoo permalink
    February 13, 2013 12:40 am

    Azarenka had established a reputation based on her own actions which go back to long before the Australian Open and was judged on her actions that day and was not given the benefit of the doubt because she has not earned it.

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