Sunday, May 5, 2013

In defense of the mental health time-out

This entry was inspired by a reader’s (Madame Lisa’s) comment. She said, “I wanted to hear your take on Azarenka’s behavior at the SF of the AO this year …the panic attack”. Thanks Lisa. You probably realize that I am a big ole nerd who loves doing homework assignments. And I am going to take a stance in defense of Victoria Azarenka.

Shocking, I’m sure. If Azarenka were an effigy, she would have been burned in Australia after she took a 9-minute time-out to gather her nerves during the semi-final match against Sloane Stephens. People felt that she was being given special privilege because she was (at the time) the top player of the WTA.

Me, I watch stunned as Sloane sat there passively, not complaining, not saying a word. I was speechless with anger – at Sloane. I could not believe her apathy. I could not handle her forbearance. I found myself thinking that if it was Serena who had taken the prolonged time-out, Sloane would have been shouting disrespect from on top of the dome of the stadium. But perhaps because her opponent was a White bitch – as opposed to a Black one – Sloane sat there like a loser as her muscles went cold and the match slipped away from her hands.

And yes, I do also understand the rage against Azarenka. The lengthy break was suspiciously timed. It went on for far too long. It had the tone of gamesmanship from a player well known for her manipulativeness during tennis matches. The way she holds up her hand just as the server is preparing to serve. The way she often seems belatedly not ready to receive. The way she seems intentionally to throw the server off her rhythm. The way her high-pitched screams continue well past her contact with the ball, all the way into its return to her. Yes, in my opinion, Azarenka is a manipulative bitch.

And yet I will defend her right to take a mental health time-out in the middle of a match. Do you know why? It’s because if she had had a hamstring injury, she would have been allowed time to have it diagnosed and treated. I don’t see the difference between the need for diagnosis and treatment of emotional distress. And I think that players should be allowed time out for treatment of mental distress as long as the rules continue to allow for treatment of physical injury. In a just world, the latter would not be favored over the former.

Rules have to be consistent. There was a time when the injury rule did not exist. But thanks to one Shuzo Matsuoka, the rules were changed in 1995, allowing players to receive medical treatment during a match instead of having to forfeit. 

This new rule has, of course, been abused like no other in tennis. Well-intentioned in its motive, it opened a floodgate of one-upmanship as players pretend to be injured only to run like gazelles toward the winning trophy. But as long as this rule continues to exist – and chances are it’s not going anywhere anytime soon – then it must be implemented.

My position is that if we allow players time out to treat heatstroke and pulled groins, then we must also allow them time to gain control of their emotions during an anxiety attack, if said anxiety is limiting their ability to perform. (I wasn’t there but I find it hard to believe Azarenka had a true 'panic attack'. People tend to mislabel anxiety as panic all the time).

Will the rule continue to be exploited? Of course it will, in much the same way that the medical time-out has been abused by cheaters with eyes only on the dollar prize. Heck, Azarenka has been known to be taken off court on a full stretcher when everybody and his sister felt that she was just being a frigging drama queen.

So yes, I will concede that her prolonged anxiety attack smells of the same level of veracity as sundry of her physical injuries. But she did not invent the rules. And once you let the horse out of the barn, it’s too damn late to wonder how you’re going to go about reining it back in.