What is a Walkover in Tennis?
Meaning, Rules, Stats, & More
In tennis, a walkover occurs when a player automatically advances to the next round without playing because their opponent is ill, injured, or subject to a code of conduct penalty.
On the surface, it’s a simple concept. However, there are subtle nuances in how the ATP, WTA, and other organizations like the USTA handle walkovers that are helpful to understand.
From ranking points to prize money and comparisons to similar terms like retirement, default, and withdrawals, I’ll cover all the essential details you need to gain a well-rounded understanding of walkovers in tennis. I’ll even dive into a handful of interesting stats on the topic.
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To help you gain a more in-depth understanding of walkovers, let’s look at some of the definitions from the most important governing bodies in tennis, including the ATP, WTA, USTA, and LTA.
ATP & WTA
The ATP and WTA are the two governing bodies of professional tennis for men and women. Per section ten of their official rulebook, the ATP defines a walkover as a:
“Match that did not begin because:
a) losing player was ill or injured or
b) losing player was subjected to penalties of Code of Conduct before first serve of match was struck or otherwise not permitted by ATP or tournament Supervisor to play.”
The WTA’s definition is virtually identical. Appendix K of the WTA rulebook defines a walkover as a:
“Match did not begin because
a) losing player was ill or injured or
b) losing player was subjected to penalties of the Code of Conduct before first serve of match was struck or otherwise not permitted by the WTA or Tournament official to play.”
The only difference is that the ATP uses ‘tournament Supervisor,’ while the WTA goes with ‘Tournament official’ in their description.
In other words, when it comes to professional tennis, there are only three circumstances where a tournament will grant a player a walkover.
It’s worth noting that if a player does not compete for any other reason, it’s no longer considered a walkover. I’ll dive into other circumstances that can have a similar outcome in the related terms section of this article.
USTA (United States Tennis Association)
The USTA is the governing body of tennis in the United States. Like the ATP and WTA, they have a rulebook that tennis players and event organizers use to ensure consistency in rules and regulations across matches.
Here’s how the USTA defines a walkover in Part 3 – USTA Regulations of their Friend at Court handbook:
“A walkover occurs 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 circumstance.”
As you can see, the definition is similar to that of the ATP and WTA. However, they account for administrative mistakes that are more likely to occur at lower levels of the sport.
Furthermore, they also leave room for personal emergencies or circumstances that might cause players to skip their match, such as a death in the family.
It’s worth noting that the ATP and WTA would also consider this scenario a walkover, which is what happened in 2021 when Naomi Osaka decided not to play the second round at the French Open.
LTA (Lawn Tennis Association)
Like the USTA, the LTA is the governing body of tennis in Great Britain. Appendix one of their guidebook defines 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.”
This definition is by far the broadest. However, within the context of the LTA’s competition guidelines, injury and illness are the most common reasons for a walkover.
Although Tennis Australia’s official books on the rules and regulations for tennis do not provide a direct definition, they do provide one within their website’s glossary. In it, they describe a walkover as:
“A victory awarded to a player when their opponent concedes a match before it begins, usually due to injury or illness.”
Again, the definition is similar to those previously mentioned. Hopefully, seeing how various organizations define a walkover provides you with confidence in the term’s meaning.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, we can trace the use of the term “walkover” back to as early as 1829.
Despite being widely used across various sports today, the term originates from horseracing. According to Wikipedia, “The word originates from horseracing in the United Kingdom, where an entrant in a one-horse race run under Jockey Club rules has at least to “walk over” the course before being awarded the victory.”
In 1908, Wyndham Halswelle won an Olympic gold medal in the men’s 400 meters by walkover. Instead of racing, he simply had to jog to victory because his competitors refused to compete.
Similarly, in the 1920 Olympic games, competitors were spread thin among 16 different yacht classes. As a result, six contestants won gold by sailing the course without facing an opponent.
Somewhere along the way, tennis and many other sports adopted the term, broadly referring to an uncontested win.
Although the concept is relatively simple, the rules or consequences of a walkover are equally important, so I’ll dive into those individually.
Win vs. Loss
Perhaps one of the most obvious questions about a walkover is whether or not they are considered a win or a loss for either player.
As it turns out, it’s neither a match win nor a loss because the event didn’t take place, so each player’s record remains the same.
One area where there’s some debate around this is regarding winning streaks. Take the following example:
- A player wins ten matches
- For their eleventh match, they receive a walkover
- They win ten additional matches before suffering a loss
Some believe this should count as a 21 match winning streak, but it’s not. Although the walkover doesn’t negatively impact the winning streak, the walkover does not count as a win, so the winning streak is 20.
Things get a little more interesting regarding walkovers and ranking points, and it differs for the ATP and WTA.
According to section ten of the ATP rulebook, “winners of “walkover” /” no match” matches receive points… as if the match had been played.”
ATP players who receive walkovers are granted ranking points for moving through to the next round despite not winning a match.
The WTA organizes things a bit differently. According to section eight of their rulebook, they touch on a few different scenarios.
- If a player or team receives a walkover in the first round, and there is no Alternate or Lucky Loser to take the spot, the player or team will receive ranking points from the round preceding her/ their elimination.
- If a player or team receives a walkover in a subsequent round without having yet played a match, the player or team will receive ranking points from the round preceding her/their elimination.
- If a player or team receives a walkover in any round except the first round after having played and won a match, the player or team will receive ranking points for the round reached.
Essentially, a player who receives a walkover doesn’t fully reap the benefits of making it to the next round due to the walkover if it’s in the first round or a subsequent round without playing a match.
However, they receive the ranking points for reaching the next round if it’s past the first round and they played and won a match.
Overall, the WTA’s method of awarding ranking points for a walkover is stricter than the ATP’s approach.
Things are more straightforward, and there’s consistency among the ATP and WTA regarding prize money and walkovers.
Here’s what the ATP states in section three of their rulebook:
“Prize money shall be paid only for matches played. If a final cannot be played, then each finalist shall be paid runner-up prize money. For purposes of this section, a match is played when it is won as a result of a retirement, default, walkover or no show.”
The WTAs stance is similar:
“A player or team who receives a walkover in any round will receive prize money for the round reached.”
Although walkovers don’t occur regularly, they provide tennis players with an easy payday, which I can only imagine players appreciate.
Another somewhat obscure reference to walkovers in the ATP rulebook is regarding ceremonies. Here’s what section eight has to say:
“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.”
For example, a player who reaches the finals of an event must participate in post-match interviews even if the player could not participate due to injury or illness unless the tournament doctor gives them a pass.
Although walkovers don’t occur regularly, there are plenty of high-profile examples to pull from when we look back on the past few years. The following are some of the most noteworthy.
February 2021, Williams, Osaka, Azarenka
Ahead of the Australian Open, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Victoria Azarenka all delivered walkovers to their opponents in the later rounds of their respective tournaments.
These players looked to ensure they were in the best possible shape before participating in the Australian Open.
- Serena Williams: Because of a nagging shoulder injury, Serena Williams withdrew from the Yarra Valley Classic ahead of her semi-final matchup vs. Ashleigh Barty.
- Naomi Osaka: To get some much-needed rest and recovery, Naomi Osaka withdrew from her semi-final match against Elise Mertens for the Gippsland Trophy.
- Victoria Azarenka: Similar to Osaka, Victoria Azarenka sought some additional recovery withdrawing from her quarterfinals match against Anett Kontaveit for the Grampians Trophy.
Considering the WTA only had 27 walkovers that year, it was noteworthy that three high-profile players withdrew and gave walkovers to their opponents in such a brief period.
June 2, 2021, Naomi Osaka
Ahead of the 2021 French Open, Naomi Osaka shared that she wouldn’t be participating in any post-match conferences required by the WTA to protect her mental health. By doing so, she would be penalized $15,000 for each that she missed, a drop in the bucket considering her earnings.
Her statements and subsequent action of skipping her first-round post-match interview triggered a stern joint statement from all four Grand Slam tournaments:
“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.”
Her actions and the response from the Grand Slam tournaments triggered a media frenzy ahead of the second round, at which time she shared the following statement with fans on social media:
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
Although she stated that it was best to “withdraw,” the WTA considered it a walkover for her opponent, Ana Bogdan, because Naomi had already begun playing the tournament.
June 7, 2021, Roger Federer
Ahead of the fourth round at the French Open, Matteo Berrettini was gifted a massive walkover when Roger Federer withdrew from the tournament due to recurring issues surrounding his knees.
Most fans were happy to see Roger Federer back competing during the tournament. However, his withdrawal and the subsequent walkover for Berrettini drew some criticism. More specifically, Jonh McEnroe suggested he shouldn’t have shown up for the tournament if he didn’t think it was one he could win or participate in fully.
August 2020, Naomi Osaka
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy recent walkovers in tennis came in 2020 when Naomi Osaka withdrew from the Western & Southern Open finals due to a hamstring injury.
As a result, Victoria Azarenka became the champion and won the tournament by walkover. It’s unique because, since 2018, it’s the only occurrence in the finals of an event. It’s unfortunate because no player wants to win or lose a tournament that way, and the fans don’t get to enjoy the match.
However, it speaks volumes for Naomi’s condition, considering it’s also one of the more important tournaments on the WTA’s calendar.
Walkovers are often confused with a handful of related tennis terms, including retirement, default, and withdrawals, which frequently have similar outcomes but don’t have the same meaning.
|Walkover||Before a Match||Illness, Injury, Code of Conduct Violation|
|Retirement||During a Match||Illness, Injury|
|Default||Before or During a Match||Code of Conduct Violation|
|Withdrawal||Before a Tournament||Illness, Injury, Personal Reasons|
Walkover vs. Retirement
A critical distinction between a walkover and retirement is timing. A walkover only occurs when a player withdraws participation before the match starts due to injury, illness, or penalty of code of conduct.
On the other hand, a retirement can only occur once a match begins. One of the reasons these are often confused is that the causes for both could be the same, i.e., injury or illness.
For example, a player can withdraw from a match before it begins due to a shoulder injury, which would trigger a walkover. Likewise, a player can retire from a match due to a shoulder injury, but the match would have already started for it to be a retirement.
In both cases, players initiate walkovers and retirements.
Walkover vs. Default
Another term often mistaken or confused with walkovers is a default, but some key factors differentiate them.
The easy way to distinguish the two is who typically initiates them. The majority of the time, a player is responsible for a walkover. More specifically, they claim to be ill or injured and cannot participate in their upcoming scheduled match after the tournament has begun.
When it comes to defaults, the tournament supervisor is responsible for the decision. The chair umpire calls upon the tournament supervisor with a player’s violation of the code of conduct, and the supervisor uses that information to decide whether to default a player.
The most common offenses that lead to a supervisor defaulting a player applies to the point penalty system, where players lose points because of their on-court behavior. Some offenses include:
- Ball abuse
- Racquet or equipment abuse
- Physical abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Audible or visible obscenity
- Unsportsmanlike conduct
- Leaving the court
- Tanking the match
Beyond that, a player’s improper dress or equipment can also lead to a default if they can’t or are unwilling to correct it per the code of conduct.
One of the reasons these two terms are often confused is that a player can be defaulted outside of a match for a code violation. It’s rare, but if it does happen, then it might be assumed as a walkover, but it’s not.
Another reason I’ve seen the two confused is that some prominent websites refer to defaults as walkovers. Check out the screenshot below.
During the fourth round of the 2020 US Open, the tournament supervisor defaulted Novak Djokovic from his match when he accidentally struck a female line judge with a tennis ball. However, Google displays the event as a walkover, which isn’t accurate.
Walkover vs. Withdrawal
Walkovers and withdrawals are perhaps the most similar, but they do have factors that distinguish them. Most importantly, a walkover occurs after a tournament has begun, while a withdrawal happens when a tennis player ops out of an event before their first match.
Like retirements, walkovers and withdrawals can happen for similar reasons stemming from illness or injury. Furthermore, both occur before a player starts a match and are player-initiated.
Withdrawals are unique because they happen before the first match of the tournament’s draw is selected. As a result, no player advanced to the subsequent round without defeating their opponent.
Of course, it doesn’t help that both terms start with the letter “w,” making it even easier to swap them accidentally.
Walkovers don’t occur regularly. Reviewing ATP & WTA tennis data, here are some stats I dug up that you might find interesting.
Here are the number of walkovers on the ATP tour and the respective percentage of total matches each year.
*Through March 9, 2022
Since 2018, only 64 walkovers have occurred, accounting for .60% of all 10,593 matches on the ATP tour, so it’s rare to benefit from one.
Furthermore, only 16 players have encountered a walkover more than once during that time. The most walkovers during this period are three, and Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitipas, and Roger Federer are the only players to hit that mark.
Here’s a look at how many of those walkovers have occurred on each surface for the ATP since 2018.
Interestingly enough, the percentage of total walkovers is the highest on hard courts, which is the most unforgiving surface. As for timing, here’s a breakdown of when those walkovers occurred during tournaments.
It’s not surprising that walkovers would be more likely to occur after a few tournament rounds. Tennis players are likely to be the freshest when entering tournaments, but injuries often sneak up on players after a few rounds.
If a player makes it to the semi-finals, they’re likely to give it their best shot, so it appears players are less likely to withdraw, resulting in fewer walkovers late in the tournaments.
Here are the number of walkovers on the WTA tour over the past few years, along with the percentage of total matches.
*Through March 9, 2022
Since 2018, only 67 walkovers have occurred on the WTA tour, accounting for .68% of all 9,872 matches, so it’s equally rare to the ATP.
Surprisingly, the same number of players have received more than one walkover as the ATP during this period, and that’s 16. The three players with the most walkovers are:
- Garbine Muguruza: 5
- Veronika Kudermetova: 3
- Sara Sorribes Tormo: 3
Here’s a look at the number of walkovers on each surface and the corresponding percent of total matches.
Like the ATP tour, most of the walkovers since 2018 for the WTA happened on hard courts. Regarding the most common rounds for walkovers, here’s a look at when they’re most likely to happen.
I always find that digging through the data surfaces some interesting insights, so hopefully, you enjoyed some of these stats.
Although rare, walkovers happen at a similar frequency on the ATP and WTA tours, typically because a tennis player is ill or injured.
Whether you’re exploring the topic for the first time or looking to gain some deeper insight, I hope you found what I’ve covered helpful in understanding what constitutes a walkover and how it differs from some related tennis terminology.
Of course, if you have any questions or you’d like to share feedback, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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