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If you have been paying attention to tennis for a while or have participated in matches or tournaments yourself, you may have heard the term “walkover” before. As shocking as it is to see a player move onto the next round in tennis because their opponent was not present, it does happen. Sometimes, even in the final round of an intense tournament. In tennis, what is a walkover and how do they work? Today, you are going to learn all about the walkover and its importance to the game of tennis.
What is a Walkover?
The definition of walkover, also written as a W.O. or w/o, is: “a player who automatically advances to the next round without playing because their opponent is ill, injured, or subject to a code of conduct penalty.” In other words, a walkover is when a tennis player is awarded a victory for a match not yet played, because their opponent is unable to compete. They move to the next round, if there was one, since tournament rules dictate that matches cannot be rescheduled for player-related issues.
However, the exact meaning of a walkover in tennis depends on the governing body that named the walkover. The ATP, USTA, WTA, and LTA all view the walkover differently. Here is a look at the differences:
ATP & WTA
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) are two of the main governing bodies of tennis. The ATP covers men’s tennis, and the WTA is for women. Being that these organizations are so similar, the majority of their rules tend to be the same, including how they define a walkover.
The ATP states that a match is considered a walkover when the losing player is injured or ill, subjected to Code of Conduct penalties, or otherwise not permitted to play. The WTA states the exact same.
Between these two organizations, there are only three reasons why someone could win by a walkover in tennis: illness, injury, or penalty. Anything else that keeps a professional player from showing up to their match is not considered a walkover. While some circumstances may be related to these things, the illness, injury, or penalty has to affect the player directly.
The United States Tennis Association is similar to the ATP and WTA in that it has rules and regulations to provide consistency between matches. In the USTA Regulations handbook called “Friend at Court,” they describe a walkover as an occurrence “when there has been an administrative error or when a player decides not to play a match in an event because of injury, illness, or personal circumstances.”
Now, this is nearly the same as an ATP or WTA walkover. However, the USTA makes room for the errors that typically occur at recreational and amateur levels of tennis. Furthermore, while penalties are included in the realm of personal circumstances, they are also saying a walkover can result from anything that causes a player to skip an important match, such as pregnancy, death in the family, or something else.
The British Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) describes a walkover as “a match awarded to a Player whose opponent does not start the match. For the avoidance of doubt a match starts when the first serve of the first point is struck.” While this is very broad, it does cover injury and illness.
The Tennis Australia guidebook does not provide an exact definition of a walkover in tennis, but they do mention it in the glossary of terms. Tennis Australia states that a walkover is “a victory awarded to a player when their opponent concedes a match before it begins, usually due to injury or illness.”
Thus, you can see that a walkover is a match where the player who shows up is advanced while the player unable to play cedes a potential victory. This allows for the lineup of matches to continue.
Origin of a Walkover in Tennis
Where does the term “walkover” come from? The Oxford English Dictionary claims that walkover has been used since 1829 or possibly earlier. Interestingly, “walkover” was not originally used in tennis but in horse racing. In the United Kingdom, the term was used to describe an entrant in a single horse race that used Jockey Club rules. The entrant needed to walk over the course at least once before earning their victory.
Somewhere during the 1900s, walkover became a term that means “uncontested win.” For example, in 1908, when Wyndham Halswelle earned an Olympic gold for the 400-meter, it was said he won by walkover because his opponents refused to race. Halswelle did not have to even run but jog the course and reach the finish line.
The term popped up again during the 1920s Olympic Games. In the yacht races, there were only a handful of competitors among the sixteen different classes of ships. Thus, six contestants were able to sail the course and win Gold without ever facing competition.
The Rules of Walkovers in Tennis
A walkover is a fairly simple concept—it’s an uncontested win—but there are some consequences that occur because of them:
The first thing to keep in mind is that the ATP and WTA keep their players on a ranking system that is based on a certain number of points accrued throughout the year. This is an interesting part of the walkover. According to the ATP handbook, winners of a walkover will receive points from their “win,” even though there was no tennis match played. Yes, players who win by walkover obtain ranking points—but only in the ATP.
The WTA views walkovers a little differently and even lists three different scenarios to clarify on ranking points:
- A player or team that wins by walkover in the first round and there is no Lucky Loser or Alternate to come play instead, that player or team receives ranking points for that round. But they must win the next match following the walkover.
- Should a player or team win by walkover in a round that has not yet been played, they can receive points for that upcoming round if they win the subsequent one.
- Should a player or team win by walkover in a match where they played through the first round or have already won a match, they receive their ranking points automatically.
In other words, the WTA makes it so players have to play or have played before the walkover in order to receive their points. This makes the WTA a little more strict when it comes to awarding points.
Wins and Losses
A lot of questions arise in terms of wins and losses. When a match does not take place, it did not happen. Therefore, walkovers do not affect the records of those who take a walkover or win because of one.
There is one area of debate. Let’s say you have a winning streak for 10 matches. Since you get injured, you ask for a walkover. After coming back from injury, you go on to win another 10 matches. Does that mean you have a 21-match streak? Or do you only have a 10-win streak?
Walkovers do not impact your record, so technically, that match you missed never happened. Thus, you have neither a 10-day streak or a 21-match streak. What you have is a 20-win streak.
Since walkovers are blank spaces, what does that mean for prize money? The ATP and WTA had very firm rules about this. Both stances agree that prize money should be awarded for those matches that were played. So, if a finalist ends up being unable to play, the other finalist wins the runner-up prize money, not the winner’s prize money. Thus, the ATP and WTA pay the players based on the round completed.
Players do not seem to mind winning runner-up compared to the winner’s prize, because walkovers make it easier on those competing to win.
Now, here is a more obscure rule having to do with walkovers that is from section eight of the ATP rule book:
“All tournament finalists must attend and participate in the post-match ceremonies, unless he is physically unable to do so as determined by the tournament Doctor. This includes retirements and finals not played due to a walkover.”
This means that if a finalist decides to drop out of a tournament, they can only be relieved of their responsibility to show up for interviews with a doctor’s note. Otherwise, both players have to attend the post-match interview, even if it was not played.
Does a Walkover Count as a Loss?
You may have heard the term “won by walkover” during a tennis match, such as during the Western & Southern Open final in August 2020. Naomi Osaka had to leave the tournament early due to an injury, and so Azarenka became the champion. However, this does not mean that a walkover is always a win or a loss. Walkovers do not count as a match, and therefore, they are neither wins nor losses. If you end up winning or losing due to a walkover, you don’t have to worry—win and loss records are not affected.
Examples of a Walkover in Tennis
Sometimes the best way to learn about a rule or concept is with an example or several. The walkover is not complicated, but there are some situations that highlight how it can be utilized. Here are some examples that explain what a walkover entails:
Serena Williams vs Venus Williams, California 2001
Back in 2001, the Indian Wells Women’s Singles event concluded with a walkover when Venus Williams stated that she would not play a semi-final match against family. The decision, being made right before the semi-finals match, was called when Venus claimed tendinitis would keep her from playing. However, this led to some people believing that matches between Serena and Venus were fixed. Serena was heckled when she took to the court for her final match against Kim Clijsters.
Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer, London 2014
Roger Federer was well known for never having once retired from the match. He always played, ending with either a win or loss. However, during the ATP Finals in London in 2014, Federer decided to pull out of the competition and award Djokovic with the victory. That was Federer’s third time asking for a walkover, and this one in particular was done about an hour before the finals match began.
Because it was going to be an upset for those who had arrived to view the matches, Federer announced to the crowd what was happening. He said that he had done everything he could to be there for the finals match, but his injuries were far too painful on that day. He would never be able to compare to Djokovic or give him a decent match. Therefore, the match was too risky to play while injured.
Here is a video of Roger Federer’s announcement:
Roberta Vinci vs Eugenie Bouchard, US Open 2015
In the fourth round of the US Open in 2015, Eugenie Bouchard took a walkover. The reason? Bouchard had slipped on the floor of a women’s locker room after a Mixed Doubles match. She had hit her head, resulting in a concussion and elbow injury. She decided to give up her next match in order to heal. Thus, Roberta Vinci was allowed to move on in the tournament.
Naomi Osaka, August 2020
One of the most recognizable examples of a walkover in tennis was during the Western & Southern Open finals in August 2020. Naomi Osaka had to quit the competition, because she had a hamstring injury. The result was Victoria Azarenka winning the finals by walkover. This was considered a unique event, since winning a championship by walkover is rare. It was a bummer for the fans who did not get to see an exciting match between two highly talented players.
Williams, Osaka, and Azarenka in February 2021
Prior to entering the Australian Open, the three players—Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Naomi Osaka—sent walkovers to their opponents. This was done in order to allow the players time to heal and prepare for the Grand Slam tournament.
Serena Williams backed out of the Yarra Valley Classic prior to her semi-final match against Ashleigh Barty because of a shoulder injury.
Victoria Azarenka delivered a walkover to Anett Kontaveit before their quarterfinals match for the Grampians Trophy.
Lastly, Naomi Osaka gave Elise Mertens a walkover for the semi-final match of the Gippsland Trophy.
This was considered an oddity—three high-ranking players all giving their opponents walkovers before the 2021 Australian Open. After all, in 2021, there were only 27 walkovers in the WTA.
Naomi Osaka, June 2021
One of the things about tennis is that the rules are a time-honored tradition. When players enter into a tournament, there are obligations that they cannot overlook, such as fulfilling their roles within the media. Naomi Osaka announced before the French Open in 2021 that she would not attend any post-match conferences in order to protect her mental state. The organization told her that she couldn’t, as she would be penalized $15,000 for every conference she missed.
Osaka skipped the first post-match interview and made a couple of statements that produced a strong response from the ITF, which organizes all Grand Slam tournaments. A joint statement was made by the tournament officials:
“We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences.”
This exchange between the Grand Slam tournaments and Naomi Osaka caused a huge frenzy within the media. Before the second round of the French Open in 2021, Osaka stated that she was going to withdraw from the tournament completely so that “everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
While Osaka used the word “withdraw,” she had already started playing within the tournament. Because of that, the WTA gave her opponent, Ana Bogdan, a walkover.
Roger Federer, June 2021
The fans of Roger Federer are always happy when he is on the court. However, Federer is not without his share of injuries. Ahead of the French Open’s fourth match, Roger Federer decided that he could no longer participate in the tournament. Having recurring knee problems, Federer found that he could not play as full-out as originally desired. Thus, his opponent, Matteo Berrettini, received a walkover.
This sparked some backlash, particularly from John McEnroe, who stated that Federer should not have even bothered competing in the 2021 French Open if he didn’t think he could win.
What is a Walkover Not?
Being that walkovers are uncommon in tennis—only a handful occur each year—they are often confused with other terms, such as default, withdrawal, and retirement. Yet, while these terms are similar, they do not mean the same thing.
What is the Difference Between a Walkover and Default?
Some people confuse the term “default” with “walkover.” The easiest way to separate the two is to remember them by how they are initiated. A player is often responsible for a walkover, due to injury or illness or a penalty. Thus, their upcoming match becomes a walkover for the opponent.
In a default scenario, the tournament supervisor is the one who is responsible. The tennis umpire will call something to the attention of the tournament supervisor and cite a violation in the Code of Conduct. When that happens, the supervisor can decide whether the action earns the player a default.
Commonly, defaults are the result of poor on-court behavior, including:
- Equipment abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Physical abuse
- Unsportsmanlike behavior
- Tanking the match
- Exiting the court
- Visible or audible obscenities
- Improper dress or equipment
It is rare for a default to occur outside of a match, resulting in a walkover. If you happen to see a website listing a default as a walkover, do keep in mind that this is false. Should a player be disqualified from a match by the tournament supervisor, their opponent wins by default. In short, defaults do not equal walkovers.
What is the Difference Between a Walkover and Withdrawal?
Withdrawals and walkovers are the two most interchangeable terms. Even tennis players will say that they withdraw from matches that end up being walkovers. The key distinction is that a withdrawal happens when a player opts out of the first match of a tournament. Walkovers occur after a match in the tournament has been played already.
Walkovers, withdrawals, and retirements are all likely to stem from injuries or illness before a match. Both walkovers and withdrawals are initiated by players, and they must be declared before the start of the match.
What separates a withdrawal from the walkover is timing. Withdrawals occur prior to the first draw of a tournament. This means that there is no player to move on to the subsequent round should their opponent not show up.
What is the Difference Between a Walkover and Retirement?
The main thing to know about walkovers and retirements is that the timing is different. A walkover can only occur if the player withdraws from a match before it begins. This has to be done because of illness, injury, or a penalty in most cases. A retirement, on the other hand, can only happen when a match has already begun. Although the reasons for walkovers and retirements are often the same, the timing is what divides the two.
For example, if a player has a wrist injury that will not recover before a match, they can withdraw. A walkover is then triggered for their opponent. If the player is injured mid-game, they can withdraw for the same injury; but that would be considered a retirement instead. Additionally, should a player retire from a match, their opponent receives a walkover.
Walking to a Conclusion
Walkovers are relatively rare in the world of tennis, but they do happen. ATP and WTA tournaments and tours often see walkovers because of injuries and illness. Hopefully, you now have a good understanding of what counts as a walkover and why such a rule exists. Knowing this handy tennis terminology can come in handy when you need to make use of a walkover yourself.