Everything was odd. The empty arena. The deafening silence. The grand introductions, complete with pauses for applause that could never be. The drop sheets spread across the lower tiers, as if the whole place was about to be painted. In a way it was: blue.
Odd. The match, so ridiculously one-sided for half an hour. The match, so other-sided for another hour. It didn’t just change, it flipped. Ashleigh Barty’s winners became Karolina Muchova’s, Muchova’s mistakes Barty’s, mirrored almost perfectly. Barty’s certain victory became Muchova’s.
Ashleigh Barty, left, and Karolina Muchova, right, after their quarter-final match. Credit:Eddie Jim
Sport stops and thinks sometimes. It is more health conscious than it was at the turn of the century, or at least less cavalier about it. Look at recent changes in approach to bleeding in the arena, to head injuries, to all-round prevention.
We’d been conditioned, via Lleyton Hewitt and others, to think that anything short of a severed limb, it should be play on. Here, I’m supposed to write the word “princess”.
Not so long ago, a cricketer would have been scorned for asking for a drink of water between breaks. Now cricketers are attended by virtual bucket brigades, running scientifically formulated hydration. To be extra careful, extra drinks breaks are sometimes granted. Sport is following the science.
Player health and welfare has been an abiding issue in this tournament. Quarantine has thrown everything and one off kilter. Novak Djokovic elevated it to the top of the agenda again late on Tuesday night. Under-prepared players are falling like flies, he said, prompting fears for the viability of the circuit itself.
Injured or ailing tennis players tend to attract scepticism rather than sympathy. Partly, this is tennis’s own fault, because it presents itself as such a nice sport. It’s not. It’s tough, and can be brutal.
But it’s not as if tennis players can be subbed in and out, as in team sports. So there are other controls. One is the medical timeout. Medical, note, not injury. The wording of the relevant rule is loose and broad. Players do take advantage of it. Roger Federer, among many, has admitted it.
The way Muchova played in the first set, it’s possible to believe she was seeing double. Certainly she was hitting to the wrong baseline, time and time again. She was much over.
“I think it was a bit of the heat,” she said later. “It got to me and I was feeling kind of dizzy at some point. Really lost and almost fainting, so I just asked for help.
“They cooled me down with ice and I was a bit in a shadow and the doctor checked my pressure, my temperature and everything. I think the ice was the main one.”
It didn’t feel hot to you? It felt warm enough to Barty, and she’s a Queenslander. Muchova is from Olomouc. The top temperature there on Wednesday was two degrees Celsius.
English-speakers seized on Muchova’s plea that she was “feeling lost” as proof that she was neither ill nor injured, just bushed. I took it to mean disoriented, that is, faint.
Is the rule wrong because it is too easily exploited, or because it worked against our Ash and ruined our Open? “I don’t write the rules,” said Barty. “I abide by them.”
Barty’s take was not to blame the timeout for the way the match boomeranged, but herself for letting it.
“I’ve played a lot of matches where there have been medical timeouts,” she said. “I’ve taken medical timeouts myself before, so that shouldn’t be a massive turning point in the match.
“I was disappointed that I let that become a turning point. I’m experienced enough now to be able to deal with that. I felt like I was in control of the match. I knew how I wanted to go about it. I just lost my way a bit.”
So it was that: Muchova lost her bearings at the start of the match, and Barty lost her way at the end. Whichever way you chart it, the fulcrum was that timeout. “They checked my pressure,” Muchova said on-court, “and cooled me with ice.” Maybe that’s what we all need.
Meantime on Rod Laver Arena, a hush had fallen on a deafening silence. That was most odd.
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