Tennis tactics at Wimbledon: the curious case of two injury time-outs

The match between Andy Murray and Andreas Seppi in the Wimbledon championship of 2015 was noted for two incidents each involving an injury break called by one of players

Saturday July 4th, 2015. Home favourite Andy Murray was scheduled to play Andreas Seppi. Murray seeded No 3 was expected to win against the lower ranked player. His previous record against Seppi was 5-1. For two sets, expectations of crowd and presumably players were more or less fulfilled. Murray cruises to a 6-2 6-2 advantage. After some lengthy rallies, Seppi looked increasingly fatigued…

In three-set matches, Murray has been known to have a lapse in form or concentration after winning a set. In this five-set match, it seemed to be happening after the second set. Seppi held a tough service game within which Murray had dropped his previous intensity.

A physically strong opponent might have sensed an opportunity to press on, but Seppi looked physically punched out, and called for an injury break.   To my inexpert gaze he had not been showing any signs of injury, just fatigue. Murray waited in obvious impatience as a burly physiotherapist arrived and administered a lengthy massage to his opponent.

Back from the brink

Immediately afterwards, Murray’s lapse of concentration continued, losing a miserable service game which contained two double faults.   Seppi appeared remarkably revived from the first shots of the renewed match. Murray’s decline and Seppi’s advance continued, and the Italian won the set comfortably. The swing towards Seppi was even more evident, as Murray drops the first game of the third set.

Anything you can do

The most obvious thing about the situation is that Murray had to do something different to upset Seppi’s rhythm. He decides to respond by repeating the disruptive move of calling for an injury time out. Once again, enter the burly physio and falls on Murray in a wrestling grip around the shoulders.

Now it is Seppi’s turn to wait. Suppose he suspected that Murray was making a not too subtle point about psychological ploys? If so, he would have little scope for objecting. Both time-outs were legal if the player had sustained an injury. he also had to consider avoiding antagonizing the crowd.

Murray recovers

Seppi showed immediate (and unusual) complete recovery after his medical intervention. So did Murray after his. He rediscovered his best and most aggressive game.

One commentator, reporting as it happened, noted:

Whether his shoulder is a serious problem or not, this isn’t a terrible time for Murray to take stock and disrupt Seppi’s current rhythm. Murray is laid flat on his back as the trainer manipulates that shoulder joint.

Let’s see what that little pause does for Seppi’s momentum. Murray’s right shoulder looks fine to me (and I’m a trained liveblogger) and he goes 15-30 up. Make that 15-40, as Seppi is ground into submission. Seppi saves the first with a forehand into the corner, but Murray grafts for, and wins, the second.

Murray goes from strength to strength and wins the set easily and the match. To the delight of the crowd.

Afterwards, the comments of the players were instructive

“If someone has treatment for their leg, you expect it’s going to hamper their movement,” Murray said. “But the next game when your serve gets broken, you’re like, ‘He should be hurt right now and I don’t feel like I should be getting broken immediately after he’s seen the trainer’. That’s the psychological part of the game and maybe something I could have done a better job of dealing with myself.”

“It looks like if the physio touch you, you can’t lose any more,” said Seppi. “I was joking with Andy at the end, like ‘You used the same tactic than me when I called the physio.’ ”

Ideals in a pragmatic world

In the recent edition of Dilemmas of Leadership I write about the dilemma of idealism in a pragmatic world facing professional athletes.

Injury time-outs are among a range of tactics found in tennis to in search of advantage. Debate tends to polarize over the ancient ideal of sportsmanlike behaviour, and the pragmatic gains of winning at all costs. At very least we might entertain the possibility that the injury breaks were tactical rather than out of medical necessity.

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