Give Me a Break
As you may realize if you’ve been watching the US Open tennis tournament, individual matches can take a long time. Especially five-set matches on the men’s side, which can make a baseball game feel like blink of the eye. There’s a lot of reasons for this, including the nature of racket technology and the number of times players wipe their face on a towel. But regardless, if you’re in a match with close sets and long rallys, it’s pretty likely you’re in for the long haul.
Of course, if you’re out there that long, and especially if you’re hydrating regularly, there’s a decent chance that nature may call. Three to four hours is a pretty long time if you’re drinking nonstop. Just try to remember the last time you watched a three-hour movie in a theater with a jumbo drink, and how hard it was to make it to the final scene. And yes, professional tennis players are a young lot with what we assume to be fully functional prostates. But I digress.
One person for whom this does seem to be an issue is Stefanos Tsitsipas, the world’s number three ranked men’s player who lost in the third round of the Open in, of course, five sets. Tsitsipas got the most attention this year at the Open not for his serve or volley or any time on the court, but rather his seemingly extensive time off it. To the point, Tsitsipas has, more than once, left the court to, in technical terms, use the restroom. And especially according to his opponents at the time, he seems to take a really long time to do it. And they don’t like it at all. Especially Andy Murray, who lost to Tsitsipas in five sets in the Open’s opening round, where Murray’s opponent took not one, but two bathroom breaks that ran around eight minutes each. One of these came in-between the fourth and fifth sets, prompting Murray to publicly announce his disdain for these tactics – something he did again after the match on twitter. By his account, and most people would agree, this long break away from the court potentially changed its entire flight path. And at the very it least gives the bathroom breaker a mental, if not physical edge over the person stuck awkwardly on Center Court.
There was a fair amount, and some might suggest too much discussion about what exactly Tsitsipas was doing in there for so long. The most widely accepted suggestions include changing his clothes, which I suppose could make him feel good. More suspect accusations include him secretly communicating with his coach, likely via some kind of burner phone. This would be a blatant breach of the rules. And just to be clear, Tsitsipas is allowed to take two bathroom breaks per match of indeterminant length. So technically, unless he’s texting his coach, he’s not actually breaking the rules.
Of course, there’s the rules and the spirit of the rules. And that seems to be at the forefront here. In a sport with an unwritten handbook second only to golf, there’s a whole lot of folks who do not take kindly to this blatant breech of the game’s code, especially to take some unearned advantage. And that, more than anything, is the crux of the debate. This isn’t really about bathrooms, although that does make it so much more interesting. This is about the social norms of sport, and what constitutes fair competition. Tennis players have a considerable toolbox of tactics to win outside the lines, beyond bathrooms. They can ask for medical attention to stall, they can argue with officials, they can pretend to have leg cramps, they can make their 20th slow stroll over to the sidelines to get another towel. And they can go to the bathroom for eight minutes. These are ways to, best put, try to get inside the other player’s head, since in the end, that’s largely where elite level sport is won and lost anyway. It’s part of why there’s a serve clock to make sure players don’t drag on to annoy their opponent. And why you can’t talk to your opponent. It’s why so many people are angry at Stefanos Tsitsipas, because in their mind, while he’s not breaking the rules, at least not as far as we know, he’s certainly breaking their spirit. Whether you agree or not is up to your perception of rules, fair play and sport itself.
Now, as far as taking eight minutes for a bathroom break? Like I tell my kids at the movies, perhaps he should lay off the soda.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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