Thoughts on Venus Williams vs. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova: controversy robs Doha of a classic

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Our guest columnist, sportswriter and author, David Fearnhead writes on a controversial night in Doha, a second-round encounter between Venus Williams and Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova that lasted almost three hours and in which the American fought off a match point. Did the umpire seal the Czech’s fate?

In the early hours of Wednesday morning a tennis match was still going on from the night before. Neither player wanted to yield, neither player wanted to accept defeat. At one end stood the tall figure of a seven-times grand slam winner in singles, past her prime but still wielding her racket with all the might of a medieval long sword. Opposing her across the net was a former world junior number 1, who’d won back-to-back Australian Open girls titles, and who refused to be beaten.

Venus WilliamsAs Venus Williams attempted to sledgehammer her way through the match, the ball just kept coming back. It was the unstoppable force meets the unmovable object. For the small crowd who remained, on a chilly evening in Doha, they were rewarded with a tennis match which sizzled, and often threatened to boil over.

In the end, there was an unsatisfactory conclusion. A tiebreak. Venus won and her opponent Barbora Zahlavova Strycova  – who’d fought like a warrior – felt cheated.

I can understand why. I felt cheated myself, and as a tennis fan I was left angry.

Hawk-Eye was meant to make things fairer. It was cold hard fact, undeniable evidence, but the challenge system which has evolved around it is so open to interpretation that it creates more problems. Umpires now have so much sway on whether or not to accept a challenge that the whole challenge system itself lacks any consistency. Some umpires will reject any challenge unless it is made immediately, and play has been halted immediately. Others apparently are far more lenient on what they accept as a ‘timely’ challenge.

Barbora Zahlavova StrycovaEva Asderaki is known as somewhat an authoritarian figure. It was she who brought the ire of Rafael Nadal when she coded him multiple times for time violations during the 2014 Australian Open. It was surprising then that she adopted such a laissez-faire attitude towards Venus’ challenges. On key points during the game, Venus consistently challenged late, and Asderaki accepted the challenge. I’d go as far to say the very outcome of the match was influenced greatly by these decisions.

Was it gamesmanship on the part of Venus or was she just being slow, either way the outcome was the same. The amount of time taken by Venus before deciding to challenge was beyond any reasonable notion of ‘timely’. On one crucial point Asderaki had even called the score before then accepting a challenge from Venus.

Nobody is expecting umpires to be wholly infallible, that’s why we have Hawk-Eye in the first place, but we would like some consistency and fairness in their decisions. We do see examples of umpires appearing to be intimidated by the bigger names, occasionally we also see them trying to make a point by being overly punitive against them, but more often than not it’s the big stars who are perceived to get favourable treatment. Much was the case with Venus on Tuesday night. Barbora’s obvious frustration grew as she remonstrated with the umpire, it eventually saw her get a warning for her troubles, and a great match was tainted only to end on a sour note.

Yes we should respect our greatest players, but they should always have to play by the same rules as everyone else. (photos: Jimmie48)


  1. The question is: did Barbora Zahlavova Strycova make late challenges? Were they rejected and Venus’ accepted? Then I’d say it was unfair.

  2. Hmm, quite the contrary, VENUS was almost cheated of the match due to the referee. Why wasn’t the ref calling those balls that she challenged? They weren’t that close, and BZS didn’t deserve to win by her errors getting called in! Besides, BZS challenges late in her matches often, since she’s usually bickering with the ref before she challenges. I don’t think this is an issue to make a fuss over. Instead, there should be more focus on consistently enforcing the 20 seconds in between points rule.

  3. I agree with Ga. The umpire and line judges made many mistakes, but letting V challenge was not one of them. I’m trying to understand the outrage here and I can’t. Late challenges happen in every match and are NOT the biggest issue in tennis. People are talking about it right now, because suddenly BZS (who often bends this rule) had a problem with it. This is how she wants to win matches? Well, Tim Smyczek she is not.

    Imagine a situation where the chair umpire says to V: “you can’t take the challenge”. She would lose three points. I’m pretty sure the outrage among tennis fans would be immense. So, again, to me, getting the right call is much more important, than arguing about what ‘timely manner’ means. It can be 5 seconds, it can be 10 or more. Get to the bottom of the truth, this should be priority and that’s what the chair umpire chose.

  4. Venus was correct on both challenges. The problem is the referees not Venus. I’m surprised you focused on Venus making late challenges instead of Barbora’s poor sportsmanship after the match. Hmmm…..

  5. The commentators said Venus challenges were not late just like I thought she responded timely.. Maybe not immediately but they were timely and also correct . Acting like a brat on the court is the topic you should be addressing.. I’m sure it’s annoying to an opponent when someone is acting crazy on court..

  6. The article is missing the point, why question Venus’ integrity because she made a correct challenge while failing to call out Beezus on her poor sportsmanship and conduct on court. If she let these calls get to her and she loses the match then that is her fault!

  7. Oh… just realised the same writer wrote the article “Why everyone should love Barbora Zahlavova Strycova” last year and mentioned that he is friends with BZS, so this article is a little biased.

  8. Would not be better to speak about the subject of the article: “The challenge must be done in ‘timely’ manner” not about the author, about the referees, about BZS behaviour on the court,….?

    In one case V called after her next ball was out, in the second case V called after the new score was confirmed by chair umpire. Is that correct?

  9. What a ridiculous blog. The author is upset Venus won. The outcome of the match was influenced – greatly – by the – late – chalenges. Are you kidding me? Even the slightest insinuation that Venus would do something like challenging late so that she can win in an unfair way is apalling. Venus always shows good sportmanships, she is one of the few women on the WTA that does that. She always gives a friendly handshake, when she loses too. Venus almost never complains about anything in any match, she never asks for favours because of her legend status. This whole blog is rubbish. Shame on you. If you want to talk about anything, what about the way BZS looked at Williams at the end of the match. If you want to write a blog, do it without the prejudice, else, stay away from writing. You’re a disgrace to writers that want to share an actual objective opinion.

  10. I’m pleased that the topic has generated such impassioned debate. That is the beauty of the game we love, and opposing opinions only serve enrich our involvement in watching sport. I must admit I was rather amused to be called “a disgrace to writers,” as the whole point of the blog, as opposed to a report, is to give personal thought. Hence the fact that readers have the option to voice their own thoughts and I thank them for doing so. I am pleased many have and have argued their own points well. If the charge against me is writing a blog fuelled by raw emotion then I will happily plead guilty. You will note, however, I did not personally attack Venus, indeed I have no prejudice against her. Do I think Asderaki mismanaged the challenges? Yes, but as I wrote on the night: “Was it gamesmanship on the part of Venus or was she just being slow, either way the outcome was the same.” I still don’t have an definitive answer for that, but I think the one thing we can all agree on is that we are very much looking forward to a future rematch!

  11. And BZS wouldn’t shake Venus’ hand after the match? She is the worst sport! Please don’t try to justify bad behavior.

  12. Much better take? ‘the 28-year-old better Czech herself before she wrecks herself.’ Seriously ? That piece is way more biased than you accuse David Fearnhead of being. Just it’s pro-Venus – that’s probably why you think it’s better.

  13. Thanks Sabey for the rest of the story. The author is a fan of the hothead BZS, whom Venus has more talent and brains in her little pinky than BZS will ever have. Of course I am a big fan of Li Na, who lost her final match of her career to BZS at Wimbledon last year in a close match that Li should have won. Ironically in that match, Li hit a winner at 5-6 in the second set tie break that was called out. Her challenge proved that the ball was indeed in. Of course the umpire said replay the point. Li then double faulted and lost the match. Had the ball been called in and BZS challenged (no way she would have returned the ball), and hawkeye proved the ball in, Li would have won the “replay”. There is too much umpire judgement on when a challenge can be accepted and when replays or no replays are allowed. But I am of course biased because I am such a huge Li Na fan. She is not the “diva” that so many of the WTA stars pretend to be. BTW Happy 33rd birthday Li Na..wish you well with you new child and new life!

  14. I don’t think the Author is attacking Venus as some people seem to be saying. If you read the article you can see his problem is to do with the length of time the umpire allows and the lack of consistency with it. We saw same problems with challenges in Wozniacki v Azarenka match. It’s quite sad if some tennis fans can’t discuss things without resorting to personal insults.

  15. The personal insults started when the writer accused Venus of gamesmanship. If the challenges were wildly off he might have some mileage but she was right on the challenges. The whole was story was a non issue.

  16. Not so long ago Andy Roddick said, that he would get rid of the challenge system. Stupid idea. But the article also had a great quote from Enric Molina (a former umpire). He said: “(…)at the end of the day, the players have a chance to make sure the calls are right. From an umpire’s point of view, this is very satisfying because the worst feeling you have in the chair is when you think you’ve made a mistake and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

    And that’s how I, as a tennis fan, see it: right call >>>>>>>>>>timely manner discussion

    Two of those challenges were very close, so I don’t necessarily blame the umpire for not overruling them. The last one (in a tie break) was a huge mistake. Thankfully the challenge corrected the mistake. Btw, the chair umpire didn’t say the full score, Venus stopped her to take the challenge. It took her 4 seconds (counted from the moment she hit the return) to do it.

    So, again, we obviously have a different opinion about it, and I don’t want to attack Barbora or You, because I genuinely think she is awesome, but in my opinion BZS was in her typical “me against the world” mood. That’s why she lost the match.

  17. Thanks get_carter, that’s exactly the type of well-measured response I was hoping to get to the article.
    (ps. I hope the name is in reference to the Caine original. Excellent film)

  18. Hi David F. don’t blow the situation out of proportion . It was just another game of tennis where there were alleged or tangible ups and downs. So what ? Both those players might meet again and have a wonderful match together the next time for all the so called ” let downs ” during this match . I love both of them .Remember you are a sports writer and you should be neutral and cover the match with broader perspective than looking at some insignificant details that upset the players,referee and the fans . Create harmony among the fan groups for each player rather than creating animosity and highlighting the short comings and weaknesses of others . If you still want to do it , choose your words well and graciously without leaning heavily on any party . This is sports write up and most of us want to enjoy reading the great moments of the match without those trivial issues! Cheers to you David !

  19. Well said “the ball is round ” and we want to enjoy reading the interesting events during the match . Let us move on to read a better write up by David . Cool it Man !

  20. I agree with Sabey ‘ sports writers should be more professional in writing for the public’ . There is not much of a issue here. The issue is the writer himself who instead of hosing down a tiny flame is in fact causing a huge fire over nothing !

  21. That is why we say it is Sports . Some players may let off their cool once in a while , Some line calls are questionable. Some referees enforce the rules strictly while most don’t, not to disrupt the flow of the match. Let us not be too critical or negative on those petty issues . There are joys, frustration and disappointments . They are all in a game .


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