Sunday, April 5, 2009

The tainted legacy of Shuzo Matsuoka

The year was 1995. His opponent was Petr Korda who subsequently became known for cheating, not by faking cramps as appears to be so common today, but because of using an illegal substance. But back in 1995, Korda was a former top ten player trying to make his way back to the top of the game. To do that, he needed to get past the 64th ranked Japanese player, Shuzo Matsuoka, whom he faced in the first round of the US Open. He would do so in a most unexpected way.

On that brutally hot New York day, Matsuoka and Korda found themselves locked in a series of tight tiebreakers. The score was 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 5-5 in favor of Matsuoka when the cramps set in. He fell to the ground and began to writhe and grimace in agony. This went on for several brutal minutes as everyone looked on helplessly. There was nothing anyone could do. It looked like a psychology experiment gone bad.

Back in the 1970s, a young murder victim named Kitty Genovese had unintentionally led psychologists along the path of studying bystander apathy and the phenomenon that came to be called diffusion of responsibility. Psychologists discovered that if you were being harmed on a New York day (or night), you had a better chance of being helped if just one or two individuals happened to observe the incident, than if you had an audience of say 25. The problem being that each of the 25 may assume that the other must have already done something -- called the police, called 911, called for an ambulance and the like -- and so everyone continues to observe but no one may actually do anything.

But back in New York in 1995, the reason that nothing was done to help Matsuoka had no relation to the legacy of Kitty Genovese. It had to do with the rules. The rules of tennis in 1995 stated clearly that a player requesting or receiving medical attention would automatically forfeit the match. The thinking was that cramping represented a loss of condition and since it was the player’s job to be in condition, any request for assistance meant that the match was forfeited.

But what ultimately transpired was neither that simple nor clear cut. Because Matsuoka did not forfeit the match because of requesting medical attention. He forfeited the match because he never got back up and started playing tennis. In the time he spent writhing on the ground, enough minutes had passed to earn him a penalty for time violation. So he basically defaulted the match by delaying it.

That single event changed the rules of tennis forever. Now players are allowed to receive medical attention during matches, without penalty and without automatic default. This is the legacy of Shuzo Matsuoka. Because of his suffering, because of the heartlessness of the incident, because of the cruelty of the fact that no one could help him -- because of all of this, today players are guaranteed that not only can they receive medical attention, but they are also allowed sufficient time for trainers to diagnose the problem without the clock ticking.

What Shuzo Matsuoka suffered would never occur today. In these times, a player calls for the trainer at the first hint of distress. In fact distress does not even have to be that close for a trainer to get called. It could be on its way in a rickshaw from a neighboring county. It could just be in the wind, a mere suspicion, a hint that a muscle might be contemplating being pulled -- and the trainer gets called. My point being that the legacy of a little known Japanese (at least in our neck of the woods; back home he went on to marry a famous TV announcer and proceeded to have three children), has been irreparably sullied by cheaters seeking any means to win.

I thought of this as I watched the match last night between Andy Murray and Juan del Potro in Miami. Both men fought brutally hard, and, until nearing the end of the match, both seemed to be playing fair. Until Murray got a break point to go up 5-2 in the third. Then suddenly, seemingly almost capriciously, Juan Del Potro requested and received a medical time-out. He had done the same thing the night before in the match against Nadal. It had worked the night before in the match against Nadal. It did not work against Murray. Which is the good news.

The bad news is the capriciousness with which this rule is violated across the board. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. Something needs to be done about this continued abuse of the use of medical timeouts. The honor of Shuzo Matsuoka demands it.