Q & A: A Few Words on “Vika-Gate”

Some of you know me from Twitter, from the handful of pieces I’ve written for the Tennis Space, or from tournaments where I occasionally impersonate an intrepid girl reporter.  All of these activities are part of my alter-ego as a tennis enthusiast and online enforcer of proper pronunciation of Serbian player’s names.  In my real life, however, I’m an English professor, a person who both interprets words for a living and spends much of my time, in classrooms or office hours, asking and answering questions as well as helping students formulate their own.  So, in what follows, I’m professing even more than usual and emphasizing some aspects of the recent controversy that caught my eye (and ear).

My primary point is pretty straightforward: how one frames & poses a question will shape, if not determine, the kind of answer one gets in return.  Here’s a brief hypothetical example before I get to the real one.  Imagine someone asking, “Was it unfair that Azarenka took such a long medical time-out (MTO)?  Do you think the rules should be better enforced?”  These questions imply a few things: that Vika took a break at her own discretion (whereas, after requesting a trainer visit during the ninety-second changeover, she received a MTO on the advice of medical professionals and by approval of the chair umpire), that it was unreasonably long (when, at approximately eight and a half minutes, its length was within the allowable time), and that her actions bent, if not broke, the rules (which is a descriptive claim or interpretation of what happened, not a fact). 

The average person being asked these questions is unlikely to respond with an analysis of them.  Rather, he or she will probably take them at face value, perhaps even be influenced by their thrust or tone, and answer accordingly.  The discussion has thus been limited in a very specific way.  Perhaps, in this case, it would have been warranted to ask some preliminary questions: “Why was Azarenka’s MTO longer than most?  Did it comply with tournament guidelines?”  The answers to these are less interesting than the discussion the earlier questions are likely to generate: it was indeed a long MTO because she was treated for two separate injuries (though it’s not clear she wanted to be); and yes, according to the ITF Rule Book, a player is allowed a maximum of two consecutive MTOs, with a “reasonable length of time” allotted for evaluation and a three-minute treatment per injury.  Further, the chair umpire, who uses a stopwatch to time everything from the five-minute warm-up and twenty seconds between points to changeovers and MTOs, did not call “time” until after Azarenka had returned from the off-court treatment area.  Conversation stopper?  Maybe notbut at least the conversation has a greater chance of heading in the right direction (assuming, of course, that you take the “right direction” to be toward discovering truth or solving problems, not provoking debate).

My central concern is with the Q&A that immediately followed Azarenka’s semi-final, as I think it shaped much of the reaction to her straight-set victory over underdog Sloane Stephens.  I hope my description of the way such exchanges generally proceed won’t strike anyone as controversial.

On-court interviews are ritual fluff designed to tie a bow on the match that just finished while also setting up the winning player’s upcoming contest.  The inevitable questions—basically, “How’d you do it?” and “What now?”—are tennis’s equivalent of the “previously on” and “stay tuned for scenes from our next episode” that begin & end tv shows.  Given these conventions, one doesn’t expect a question about a MTO in an on-court interview, as they can be sensitive subjects regardless of whether taken by the victor or her opponent.  Thus, at the 2012 US Open, CBS’s Mary Carillo didn’t ask Andy Murray about either the bathroom break he took after the fourth set (and which he later admitted helped him to regroup after dropping a two-set lead) or Novak Djoković’s fifth-set MTO, which some observers considered unsportsmanlike.  The on-court interview is not a press conference: it’s generally a feel-good moment engineered to give the spectators an opportunity to share in the players’ emotions, a sense that they’re getting to know them as people, and the victors one more round of applause after their opponents have left the court.

Keeping these fairly well-established conventions in mind, is it so surprising that Victoria Azarenka misunderstood what was happening in the on-court interview following her match on Thursday?  That the spectators in the stands and the fans at home understood what Sam Smith was asking Vika is, in part, a function of the reality that, while we weren’t with or in her body, we were privy to an awkward ten-minute discussion of it—a wait filled with images of Stephens sitting still in her chair and, for tv viewers, a noisy, one-sided debate about the legitimacy of Azarenka’s actions.  But because Vika didn’t think she’d done anything wrong by, first, asking to see the trainer during a changeover and, second, following the medical staff’s advice to get treatment off court (both of which are within the letter of the law governing such matters) and, further, since she may not have picked up on the vibe in Rod Laver Arena upon her return, she may not have grasped what she was being asked by Smith to explain.  Add to this the fact that English is not the Belarusian player’s first language and. . .  Well, you get the idea.  (Those who think Vika’s English is plenty good may never have heard Djoković, one of most articulate non-native English speakers on tour, say “simple-minded” when he intends “single-minded” or “collaborate” when he means “collapse.”  If you want the low-down on the linguistic ability and verbal tics of the players on tour, look no further than the wonderful women of ASAP Sports who transcribe the press conferences.)

So, what did Sam Smith ask Azarenka?  Not—literally—what most people think she did.  “Victoria, congratulations: you’re back in the final.  But, um, you had a few difficulties out there,” observed Smith.  “Can you tell us why you had to go off and. . . how are you?”  There was a pause in the middle of the sentence that I think it’s apt to call awkward and attribute, at least in part, to Smith’s not being in the habit of asking pointed questions on such occasions.  In fact, putting a victor on the spot might even be considered a breach of on-court-interview etiquette—not that I blame Smith, who likely had little choice in the matter.  Note the words that are missing here: injury, trainer, medical, time-out, leave, court.  Consider, too, other words or phrases that are ambiguous: difficulties, out there, go, off.  (After all, I’m going off at this very moment, aren’t I?  And I’m pretty sure players’ games go off unexpectedly at times—as, alas, do guns.)  Not least, there’s the totally vague final question “How are you?” which could mean just about anything from “How is the part of your body that got treated?” to “How do you feel to be back in the final of the Australian Open?” 

And yet, Smith’s is being represented as a “simple question” about the “supposed injury” by various journalists, with nearly all of those reporting on the incident paraphrasing rather than quoting her directly, thereby not only eliding the ambiguity but also assuming to know what Azarenka heard and understood.  It’s easy enough for us to say that what Smith asked was “Why did you leave the court to get medical treatment after failing to convert match points and when it was your opponent’s turn to serve to stay in the contest?”  But that’s not what she asked.  Nor did she ask the decidedly less long-winded but equally specific question: “Why did you request a trainer at that particular moment in the match?  Couldn’t you have waited a bit?” or even “What injury did you have treated when you left the court?”

If Azarenka had been asked one of the above questions, then I could understand the level of outrage that greeted her reply, which failed to answer the question on everyone but Sam Smith’s lips.  As it is, however, I found the response to her on-court interview not only impatient and ungenerous but even irresponsible.  What Azarenka did when she requested to see the trainer at 5-4 is controversial enough.  Like others, I’m pretty comfortable with the charges of poor timing and questionable sportsmanship against Azarenka and I, too, wondered about the severity of the injury she was suffering (a locked rib, she told the media in the press conference that followed) or the degree to which it, rather than nerves, were the cause of her chest pains and difficulty breathing.  Still, to suggest that she brazenly confessed to gamesmanship on court, that she indicated she had been treated for mentally choking (a “panic attack,” some were calling it), that there are major inconsistencies between her on-court responses and subsequent explanations, or, worse, that she’s a liar and a cheat seems both excessive and inaccurate.  She did something that almost all of us wish she hadn’t (and that many other players arguably wouldn’t)— something that may have compromised her opponent’s opportunity to try to hold serve, stay in the match, and perhaps even take the set.  That’s pretty bad.  Why make it worse by assuming she heard the words we did and by putting other words in her mouth?