Just needed to go to the bathroom, that’s all

“Fact of the day. It takes Stefanos Tsitsipas twice as long to go the bathroom as it takes Jeff Bezos to fly into space. Interesting.”

This tweet by Andy Murray, with an emoji of a toilet seat followed by a rocket, after his first-round US Open loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas not only sent tennis Twitter into a spin—it garnered 84.4K likes—but got the ATP cracking the whip on the amount of time professional male players can while away in a toilet during a match. Elsewhere on another court, on a totally unrelated subject, it also got Nick Kyrgios all in a froth. When told by the umpire that fetching his own towels was part of the game now, the Aussie replied: “Taking 20-minute bathroom breaks is part of the game? I need to take a sh*t, part of the game.”

Toilet breaks may hardly find a mention in any other sport but in tennis the issue simply refuses to get flushed down.

It reached a flashpoint a few months ago in New York as Tsitsipas took a toilet break lasting almost eight minutes before the start of the fifth set against Murray, after already having taken one before the third. Murray went on an on-court rant, complaining about the amount of time the Greek was away. With his mind heating up and body cooling down, the 34-year-old lost the final set 6-4. From accusing him of cheating to saying he’d lost respect to firing satirical shots a day later, Murray had taken Tsitsipas—who, to be sure, was well within the rules—and the toilet tussle head on.

Earlier this week, the governing body of men’s tennis took note, restricting toilet breaks to one per match stretching to a maximum of three minutes (with an extra two minutes for change of attire) from next season, adding that “time violations will apply if a player is not ready within the allowed time”. What’s changed? The rules earlier allowed players to make two trips to the toilet in best-of-five matches “for a reasonable time”. That term remained a grey area, with players often being accused of using long toilet timeouts as a tactical ploy to break the momentum and rhythm of their opponent or gather themselves during crunch moments of a match.

Tsitsipas has been the face of that perception of late, with Alexander Zverev going as far as saying that the Greek uses the time to read text messages from his father-cum-coach on his phone kept inside his kit. The Greek, though, has himself been at the receiving end of a lengthy toilet break shifting the dynamics of a contest. With Tsitsipas two sets to love up against Novak Djokovic in the 2021 French Open final, the world No. 1 went off court for quite a long while, strolling back out on the dirt and neatly running away with the match thereafter.

Toilet breaks as a tactic is not a new phenomenon in tennis. It’s also common notion on the tour that players largely do not use the break for what it’s actually meant: attending to nature’s call.

On most occasions, it’s clear as daylight. More than a decade ago at the 2010 Australian Open, Roger Federer encashed one from his otherwise untouched toilet break tank after a poor first set against Nikolay Davydenko in the quarter-finals. Bothered by the angle of the sun hitting the court, the Swiss hoped to bide his time for it to shift position, even if ever so slightly. “You’re allowed to have two toilet breaks, and I never use them. But I figured I’ll only use it once, and if the sun even moves by one centimetre in that time maybe it’ll be the point that makes the difference,” he had said. It did. Federer won the next three sets.

Murray, quick to raise a stink over Tsitsipas’s toilet antics, himself took a long one before the last set of that epic 2012 US Open final. The young Greek, by the way, made it a point to remind everyone of “that break, can you please look it up and let me know next time?”.

Back in 2012, the Briton won the first two tight sets before Novak Djokovic breezed through the next two. That’s when Sir Andy excused himself. Although not as long as Tsitsipas was off court, Murray revealed in a later interview that he used the break to just stand in front of the mirror and talk to himself. “Out loud. ‘You are not losing this match,’ I said to myself. ‘You are not going to let this one slip. This is your time.’ At first, I felt a bit weird, but I felt something change inside me,” Murray recalled as he went on to win the final set 6-2 for his first Grand Slam title.

The women’s governing body has been a little more preemptive, reducing toilet breaks from two to one for all women’s matches from 2019. At the start of the same season, Maria Sharapova was loudly booed by the Melbourne crowd for making them, and Ash Barty, wait fairly long to resume play between the second and third sets of their Australian Open clash. Asked about it later, an irked Russian shot back: “What do you want me to say to that question?”

Rafael Nadal was similarly dismissive when asked about the timing of his toilet break only one set into his third-round 2014 Wimbledon match against Mikhail Kukushkin. “I needed to go to the bathroom, that’s all,” Nadal said. For the record, the Spaniard won the subsequent sets 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 after losing the first.

Former champion John McEnroe, working as a commentator then, wasn’t buying into any of that. “It’s gotten completely out of hand,” McEnroe was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “Most of the times, it’s when someone loses a set. Very rarely does it happen that you go out when you’re winning.”

Slot Ana Ivanovic in that category. Add another rare tag to it, for she was actually penalised. At a WTA event in Linz in 2010, Ivanovic asked for a toilet break after winning the opening service game of the match. The 1-0 scoreline turned 1-1 when she returned to court. The rules stated that toilet breaks could only be taken between sets or before the player’s own service game, unless, in exceptional circumstances, the umpire allows it. Ivanovic thought the nod was given to her, only to be mistaken. The umpire thus docked four points. Ivanovic went on to win despite the punishment and some bad yogurt before the match.

At times, it’s legit. At times, they really may have to pee. Like Denis Shapovalov—who, in his own words, has the smallest bladder—in his match against Jannik Sinner at this year’s Australian Open. Having used up his two toilet breaks, the Canadian was denied another one after the fourth set. “I’m going to piss my pants! I’m going to piss in a bottle!” Shapovalov told the chair umpire. “You guys are not allowing players to piss? I don’t understand this rule!”

Somewhere between these extremes lies a quiet, debate-free toilet break in a tennis match.

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