Stefanos Tsitsipas and bathroom breaks: Explaining 2021 US Opens biggest controversy

As the great New York comedian Jerry Seinfeld would say: “What’s the deal with all these bathroom breaks?”

Just two days into the 2021 U.S. Open, the topic of conversation isn’t entirely focused on the action on the court. The biggest topic is, instead, what happens when a player leaves the court.

It all began on Day 1 when Andy Murray and Stefanos Tsitsipas partook in a five-set thriller that saw the No. 3 seed from Greece take a long bathroom break before the ultimate fifth set. The pause came after Tsitsipas had a medical timeout that Murray thought was a little suspicious.

“It’s just disappointing because I feel it influenced the outcome of the match,” Murray said. “I’m not saying I necessarily win that match for sure, but it had influence on what was happening after those breaks.”

TSITSIPAS: Murray ‘lost respect’ | Zverev adds fuel 

Murray was speaking more on gamesmanship, but Alexander Zverev — who has a history with Tsitsipas — on Tuesday went a bit further and suggested he was cheating while in the washroom.

“He’s gone for 10-plus minutes; his dad is texting on the phone. He comes out, and all of a sudden his tactic completely changed. It’s not just me but everybody saw it,” he said after his first-round win over Sam Querrey. “The whole game plan changes. Either it’s a very magical place he goes to or there is communication there.”

So what exactly is going on here? Is there a backstory here and what are the rules? Sporting News takes an in-depth look at the toilet controversy running amok at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

What actually is tennis’ bathroom break rule?

According to the 2021 Official Grand Slam Rule Book, the rule is as follows:

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.

It should also be noted that a line umpire is expected to go with the player when they leave the court “to ensure the player does not use the break for any other purposes.” They are required to report any rules being broken but, obviously, there is a line of how far they probably go to check.

There is also no time allotment for the bathroom break. Obviously, the court’s location affects the duration. Courts outside of Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums may not have an easily accessible bathroom, which would result in a longer stoppage. 

Why is the length of time such a big deal?

As Murray noted, a long break affects a player’s body.

“Yeah, it just cools down a little bit. … Obviously there’s a lot of adrenaline running through your body. Lose a set like that (Murray lost the fourth set 6-3), then take a long break, the adrenaline sort of wears off a little bit. That’s what it feels like, you just feel a little bit flat,” Murray said after saying earlier in his presser he was expecting a long break from his opponent.

“The longer the match goes on, like, seven, 10 minutes after a match finishes, for example, you go into the locker room and sit down a bit, you start stiffening up a bit, as well. Certainly at my age, anyway, maybe not when I was in my early 20s.”

Why is everyone mad at Tsitsipas?

“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,” said the elder statesman Murray, who is also on the player council. 

Yep, Tsitsipas is being accused of taking gamesmanship to another level. Of course, players will take a moment or a pause or yell at themselves at times to break up the momentum. And yes, the 23-year-old may be taking it to an extreme. However, the bigger issue to focus on is that he’s also being accused of cheating.

At the Cincinnati Open just over a week ago, Zverev brought up his extended toilet breaks to the chair umpire during the duos semifinal showdown.

“He took his bag with his phone and everything in it,” Zverev said to chair umpire Adel Nour during an eight-minute break by the Greek player. “This was the same thing in Paris and is going to be the same thing every other tournament he’s playing.” (Zverev lost in five sets to Tsitsipas in the semis at Roland Garros.)

Of course, Nour tried to squash that by saying he had an escort, as dictated by the rule. But let’s be honest — and like Zverev said: “He’s not going to escort him into the toilet.”

The broadcast showing Tsitsipas’ dad texting while his son was off the court certainly didn’t help extinguish the fire.

The extended stoppage also occurred during his quarterfinal match with Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime that saw him take a 10-minute break.

“I don’t think it would be very nice if I change shorts on the court in front of everybody,” Tsitsipas said after the loss to Zverev in August. “I prefer to do that in the locker room, including socks and shoes. I’m a person that sweats a bit more than others. I think it’s acceptable. Some people were teasing me and making fun of this, but it’s just how it works for me.

“People have to understand. I’m not going to stop doing it, because it makes me feel better when I step out on the court to begin the new set.”

He backed up his stance after his win over Andy Murray.

“I don’t think I broke any rules. I played by the guidelines, how everything is. … As far as I’m playing by the rules and sticking to what the ATP says is fair, then the rest is fine,” he said, before calling the cheating controversy “absolutely ridiculous.”

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