Stefanos Tsitsipas became the pantomine villain for his extended bathroom breaks in the US Open. But the issue is he actually did nothing wrong.
Sports fans love a good villain. In an arena where heroes are made on almost regular basis, it is fun to find someone at whom you can boo your heart out. Never has this been more evident than in the 2021 US Open. The villain in question? Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek tennis star, once the darling of the tennis world for taking Novak Djokovic to the limit in the 2021 French Open final, became the target of consistent booing. The reason? His lengthy bathroom breaks that saw accusations of both gamesmanship and cheating thrown his way by his fellow competitors.
It started in the first round itself, when he beat elder statesman Andy Murray in a five-setter. Tsitsipas took a lengthy toilet break after the fourth set, which he won.
The break in play absolutely halted the momentum of the match and Murray struggled to recover, losing the fifth set too. Afterwards, Murray admitted he lost respect for Tsitsipas – but also that he expected such a thing to happen.
“It’s not so much leaving the court. It’s the amount of time. I spoke to my team before the match about it and said to expect that, prepare for it if things were not going his way. So I was trying to do that.”
Alexander Zverev, who’s himself been on the end of Tsisipas’ long breaks during the Cincinnati Masters, accused the Greek star of cheating.
“He took his bag with his phone and everything in it,” Zverev said to chair umpire Adel Nour during an eight-minute break.
“This was the same thing in Paris and is going to be the same thing every other tournament he’s playing.” And when the umpire said Tsitsipas had an escort, Zverev rightly said no one would go inside the bathroom with him.
For his part, Stefanos Tsitsipas maintains he is not doing anything against the rules. And here’s the thing – he’s absolutely right in that regard.
Here’s what the Grand Slam Rule Book has to say on bathroom breaks:
“A player may request permission to leave the court for a reasonable time for a toilet break, a change of attire break, or both, but for no other reason.
“Toilet breaks should be taken on a set break and change of attire breaks must be taken on a set break. In singles events a player is entitled to one (1) break during a best of three (3) set match and two (2) breaks during a best of five (5) set match.
“Any toilet break taken after a warm-up has started is considered one of the authorised breaks. In all cases, the nearest assigned bathroom must be used. The player is expected to have needed attire available on court.
“Additional breaks will be authorised but will be penalised in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule if the player is not ready to play within the allowed time.
“Any player abuse of this rule will be subject to penalty in accordance with the Unsportsmanlike Conduct section of the Code of Conduct.”
The key takeaway, of course, is that there is no hard time limit imposed on such breaks. As such, a player can justify being off court for any amount of time as long as umpires deem it “reasonable”.
The subjectivity of the rule allows for players to not feel pressured while taking breaks. Unfortunately, it’s also had another effect – it’s made gamesmanship all the more easier.
Truth be told, Tsitsipas is an easy target here. There’s no doubting the fact that he’s pushing the limits of the rule. But the simple truth is he is not breaking them.
Tsitispas’ actions are, an effect of the rules in place. Were the rules much stricter in this regard, he would not think twice about taking lengthy bathroom breaks.
The question that should thus be asked is – how do you allow for a reasonable time limit on bathroom breaks?
The first would be to define the nature of the emergency. If, for instance, a player is suffering from an upset stomach, it would be unwise to impose a hard limit.
However, if the aim is merely to change clothes – as Tsitsipas claimed to be the reason for his breaks – then a hard limit is understandable. After all, no one should be taking nearly 10 minutes to change out of clothes.
Again, there are exceptions to be made in this case too. American star Sloane Stephens noted it can be hard to change out of a wet sports bra in three minutes. But she too believes a rule change is needed.
“I can’t speak for what happened in that match, but I do know on the girl’s side, there still is a lot of that. It’s gamesmanship,” she said after beating Coco Gauff. “I think there definitely needs to be a rule or changes.
“I don’t think you should be gone from the court for six-eight minutes. It is a long time to leave a match. That changes the whole momentum of a match. If you’re changing your clothes, what are you changing? What are you doing in there?”
Stefanos Tsitsipas has understandably copped a lot of flak for his stance on bathroom breaks. Yet even his staunchest critics should note that he’s not the issue here – the rules are.
Athletes will always look to play on the edge of the rules – it’s that simple. When the difference between a win and a loss is marginal, doing whatever possible within the rules is bound to happen.
Therefore, it is important to ensure rules are easy to abide by and don’t consistently create disruptions. Otherwise, if the rules remain like this, this kind of gamesmanship will only increase.
As such, this toilet break rule clearly needs a change. Ensuring hard limits after giving so much leeway probably isn’t the solution. But there needs to be a meeting in the middle.
Because, as things stand, the rule is hindering rather than helping tennis players.