When in Flushing Meadows
Stefanos Tsitsipas and the eternal bathroom breaks
Stefanos Tsitsipas has been going to the bathroom for too long between sets. Yes, that is an extraordinarily silly sentence, and yet it’s news that has dominated tournament press coverage so far. Even a biblical storm interrupting matches at the US Open yesterday, with beer stands becoming self-aware and Charybdis making a rare appearance near the practice courts, couldn’t upstage this apparently most pressing of stories.
For those of you who are blissfully unaware of the above, a brief refresher. On Monday night, between the 4th and 5th sets of a very enjoyable 1st Round match against Andy Murray, Tsitsipas took a seven and a half minute bathroom break (he had already taken a long one earlier in the match but this drew almost no attention). Murray was livid and shouted that Tsitsipas was ‘cheating’. Crowds were booing. Tsitsipas was in a world of his own and barely seemed to notice the commotion. Murray’s rage never recovered and frankly the temper hurt his tennis for a crucial period of the first few games of the set. Tsitsipas won the match, an icy cold handshake followed, and everyone got very mad about it. Murray stated that he had lost respect for his opponent and tweeted this the next morning:
Fast forward two days later and Tsitsipas again, this time after losing the 3rd set to Adrian Mannarino, took an eight minute bathroom break. Almost everyone got very mad once again, although this time his opponent didn’t seem to blame Tsitsipas at all:
That this is all unfolding at a tournament location called ‘Flushing Meadows’ is clearly some kind of sick cosmic joke.
Tsitsipas, who must have been doing some homework on the recent history of bathroom breaks in tennis in an effort to legitimise his own, excitedly thought he had the winning zinger in a sparring session with a journalist last night. But unfortunately for the Greek the exchange did not go as well as he had anticipated:
The circus continued with the Tennis Podcast bizarrely reporting the following:
“Annabel Croft, who says she spoke to the Tsitsipas team today, mentions twice that Tsitsipas learned the value of a bathroom break from the one Novak Djokovic took during the French Open final.”
If this is true this is a blatant admission of gamesmanship and a very odd thing to admit.
Reilly Opelka weighed in with the following:
“Yeah I think it’s ridiculous, like, I understand it’s getting press because tennis is lame and tennis media sucks and they’re terrible.”
This was an odd position because it was Murray and Zverev who brought up and publicised the issue in the first place rather than tennis media, although Opelka is also not wrong about some areas of the sporting press and their obsessive hyperfocus on this issue.
And finally Sloane Stephens came up with a more reasonable take:
“I do think that on the girls side there is a lot of that, it is gamesmanship… there needs to be rule changes. They make a lot of rule changes like taking a minute off the warm up, but if someone goes to the bathroom for nine minutes no one says anything…. I don’t think you should be gone from the court for… 6-8 minutes is a long time to be gone from a match, that like changes the whole momentum of a match, I feel like if you’re changing your clothes what are you changing? like what are you doing in there?…. but again if you ever change out of a wet sports bra, which I don’t think you (journalists) have you wouldn’t know how difficult that, but that’s like maybe a five minute (thing), but when you get into six, seven, eight, nine minutes, it’s like ok what are you doing in there? do you need help? I can come and help you, like what’s happening? So I think that’s more where the issues are, because it becomes pure gamesmanship.”
As trivial as parts of all this are, Tsitsipas is taking too long in the bathroom unless he has some undisclosed medical issue that forces him to take longer. Eight minute cool-downs are not fair for the other player on court and can absolutely disrupt momentum and muscles. Furthermore the Greek is doing this match after match.
There is no current time limit on length of bathroom breaks between sets. The powers-that-be have tried in the past to regulate this, with past umpire, and VP of Rules & Competition, Richard Ings noting that he had even tried a statistical analysis of ‘dump times’ (how is this sport even real?) to figure out some kind of all-encompassing bathroom break standardization. He came up short due, in part, to faecal ‘outliers’.
The number of variables is the biggest issue when trying to make a rule for this. Show courts have bathrooms right next to the court in many instances, whereas outer courts regularly require players to wade through crowds & queues across hundreds of metres to find a bathroom at some tournaments. Men and women also have different requirements for bathroom breaks. As Sloane Stephens notes, men don’t have to take off sweaty sports bras nor deal with periods, although clearly removing and replacing sweat drenched clothes for any gender can be a lengthy process. Some tournaments happen in low humidity and others happen in high humidity, with the latter obviously requiring more head-to-toe kit changes than the former. Writing a rule with all these different sub-clauses under different conditions and types of courts may just end up overcomplicating a problem which is only occasionally visible. You can also rest assured that these officials have, unfortunately for them, spent more time and expertise thinking about these toilet shaped issues than your average fan or journalist on twitter.
The bigger question here is whether a rule change is actually necessary (especially considering it’s already been tried by those with more experience on the matter) or whether this media circus has unjustifiably riled everyone up. The bathroom break issue was getting very little mainstream attention before the news cropped up in Cincinnati in the Zverev vs Tsistipas match, in which Zverev accused Tsitsipas of texting his father during a long bathroom break. If Tsitsipas were taking 3-5 minute breaks between sets rather than 7-8 minutes, or merely doing it less frequently, there’s a good chance none of this outrage would ever have reared its ugly head. And you better believe that no one will care about this issue in a few weeks time when the latest episode of manufactured tennis drama drops. I think if tennis was a more reasonable sport, this entire scenario would probably have been nipped in the bud very early on. Either in Cincinnati, or after the 1st Round of the US Open here in New York, an ATP/ITF/USTA official could easily have taken Tsitsipas to one side and had an extremely basic, private conversation:
‘Hi Stefanos, do you need any medical assistance in the bathroom? Is there anything we can do to help make the process more efficient, maybe more towels ready and waiting? Is there a particular reason you’re taking 8 minutes?’ If the answers were ‘no’ then the followup should have been: ‘Hey Stefanos, not a huge deal at this stage but if you could try and quicken your bathroom breaks significantly in between sets that would be appreciated. We don’t have an explicit rule on this because we don’t want to regulate player bowel movements or intimate bathroom needs, but eight minutes is literally taking the piss unless there’s a specific issue here. If there is, we’ll do our best to accommodate and help you.’ If, post-warning, Tsitsipas still continued to take these long breaks, match after match without justification, and opponents continued to complain, then any of the tennis organisations could threaten discipline under the vague and catch-all rules that already exist in the ATP rulebook about ‘sportsmanship’ and conduct. That’s partially what those rules are there for.
It’s not like large swathes of the player body are all currently taking 8 minute bathroom breaks match after match on the show courts and creating unwatchable, staccato set-by-set chaos. It’s mostly the fact that Tsitsipas is doing this so consistently and brazenly that’s an issue for observers. And it is completely beyond me that no official sat the Greek player down when this first became apparent and quietly had a reasonable conversation, possibly with a private warning, rather than letting it drag into a media circus.
This brings us on to the part of Opelka’s quote about the media which was vaguely reasonable if you’re feeling charitable. The fact that the tennis world and media have been so effortlessly engulfed in this pseudo-drama is a predictable reflection on the sport as a whole. Modern sports journalism like tennis reporting is an area where important and serious reporting happens in a vanishingly small proportion of the year. Rare moments like the recent domestic abuse allegations against Zverev, match fixing investigations, financial analysis of the tour etc. make up less than 1% of tennis journalism. This isn’t surprising or even a bad thing. Tennis, after all, is just a game, providing lighter relief for viewers and fans and an escape from the latest geopolitical conflicts for example. But this reality leaves much of the tennis press spending 99% of the year hyper-analysing petty morsels of stories like loo-gate above. As a result the press unfortunately reports on these morsels with the sort of breathless seriousness, gusto and outrage that feels more at home in the more serious, but scarce, topics. This is merely the reality of the easy-attention based model that underpins parts of modern media. It’s also much easier, and usually more rewarding, to write angrily about bathroom breaks and ‘CHEATING’, than match-fixing, conflicts of interest or match analysis, even when those topics are relevant. But the end result is that fans and viewers get whipped up into a frenzy of outrage over generally trivial, or at least fleeting and avoidable, matters in this sport.1 And the more complex stories, which deserve much of the angry attention, end up getting either ignored, or enjoy extremely short half-lives of attention when the next ‘controversy’ inevitably springs up. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tsitsipas’ bathroom antics have spawned more words, media scrutiny, comments, and even overall reach than the now-overshadowed allegations against Zverev last week. The news cycle moved on rapidly and the results are in: loo breaks > alleged domestic abuse.
All in all this whole episode is silly and was probably avoidable. Tsitsipas shouldn’t be taking eight minutes in the bathroom match after match. It’s clearly unfair on his opponents. But this could probably have been navigated more harmlessly if leadership had pulled him aside and let him know that making a habit out of this isn’t in the spirit of the game. Instead, Murray-supporting British journalists are foaming at the mouth, some players are livid, Tsitsipas is getting torrents of abuse on social media, and no one is actually talking about the tennis four days into one of the most important tournaments of the year.
Tennis, as always, lives to solve the trivial, and loathes to solve the serious.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
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Top: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty
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This isn’t really a criticism of the media, it’s just baked into the incentives at play here and you could argue stuff like this blowing up is good for the game if you zoom out. But it’s something to consider as a viewer/fan when you get swept along with the latest tennis drama cycle. You don’t have to take this stuff as seriously as parts of the media suggest. And there are usually more rational or reasonable solutions than what gets proposed in the heat of the moment by fans and journalists on twitter.