Socrates, the much-quoted countryman of Stefanos Tsitsipas, is believed to have once said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”
It’s early days at the US Open. But enough has happened in New York, and in the tournaments before it, for both Tsitsipas and tennis authorities to think about something – the game’s toilet trip rule.
In two matches at the US Open, Tsitsipas, 23, world No.3 and with a game to be two spots higher, has taken three indulgent bathroom breaks. Two of them came in his first round five-setter against one of the game’s great soldiers, Sir Andy Murray. The Scot is a winner of three majors and an Olympic gold and is 11 years older than Tsitsipas. He now plays with a metal implant in his hip as he attempts to prolong his career.
Both of Tsitsipas’ washroom excursions against Murray lasted over eight minutes each. That’s about 17 minutes in all.
Murray, a compelling mix of British-accented, senior statesman gravitas and fiery tirades, vented out his frustration to his box, and to supervisor Gerry Armstrong and chair umpire Nico Helwerth. In the post-match press conference, he did not hold back, saying “I lost respect for him (Tsitsipas).”
There is no doubt there was a gamesmanship angle in Tsitsipas’ actions. As Murray said, it has a physical effect on a player when there is a long halt in play. It brings down the adrenalin, stiffens the muscles just that little bit. By the time play resumes, any momentum gained has flattened out. You may practice serves while you wait for your opponent to return, or stretch and jog. But it is not the same as real match play.
The problem is that technically, Tsitsipas did not do anything wrong. The rule allows for two toilet breaks in a best-of-five set match. The rule also does not specify a time limit for the breaks. Instead, the duration should be “reasonable”, the rule says, unreasonably. Such vagueness creates confusion and offers scope for gamesmanship.
“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,” the 2021 Grand Slam rule book says.
Adrian Mannarino, Tsitspias’ last opponent, put the blame on the rule and not Tsitsipas. “He’s (Tsitsipas) not doing anything wrong. I think the rule is wrong,” Mannarino said.
The arbitrariness of the toilet law has driven players to frustration before. Last year, Ilya Ivashka was penalised an entire game for taking too long in the stall. “If you wanted me to **** right on the court, I could do it,” an irate Ivashka said to the umpire.
While the rule’s phrasing may be the root cause of complications, Tsitsipas has exploited it too often. Besides, it is not just the duration with him either. It has openly been questioned if the bag he takes to the bathroom has a phone, and if he uses that to text his father, Apostolos, for tactical advice.
During his thrilling semifinal in the US Open warm-up in Cincinnati against Alexander Zverev, Tsitsipas set off for the facilities after the first set, this time after winning it. He took his bag with him. As Zverev waited, and waited, he noticed Papa Tsitsipas at courtside, texting. Zverev voiced his suspicion to the umpire that Tsitsipas was taking advice from his father.
“He’s gone for 10-plus minutes. His dad is texting on the phone. He comes out, and all of a sudden his tactics completely changed,” Zverev said. “It’s not just me but everybody saw it.”
Tsitsipas has indulged in other forms of gamesmanship too. He’s called Daniil Medvedev a “Bullshit Russian”. Against Dennis Shapovalov once, he tapped the court with his racquet during a point to distract his opponent.
He can also be temperamental. Once he took an angry swipe at the air with his racquet, almost hurting Apostolos in the process. His mother, Julia, walked up to the corner and had a word with her son. Mom’s counsel, together with the wisdom of Socrates, might just make Tsitsipas think about his behaviour and his bathroom breaks.