Tennis, a sport known for rapid-fire rallies, sprints to the net and fast-twitch lunges, is being slowed by the most basic of human needs: the bathroom break.
With matches often stretching past an hour and a half, sometimes a player truly has to answer nature’s call during a set. But many times the break appears to be part of a delay strategy, which has frustrated tennis officials eager to keep things moving for less-patient spectators and television viewers.
On Tuesday, Stefanos Tsitsipas left the court for a bathroom break midway through the third set of his nearly four-hour first-round match at the United States Open. While he was gone, his opponent, Andrey Rublev, paced back and forth, panther-like, behind the baseline. A full six minutes elapsed before play resumed.
When Coco Gauff, 15, and Anastasia Potapova, 18, split sets in their first-rounder later that afternoon, both ran off the court to the restroom during a two-minute break before the third set.
And two weeks before the U.S. Open, in a match at the Cincinnati Masters, Nick Kyrgios took a bathroom break after being assessed a penalty for cursing at the umpire. He grabbed his rackets and walked off the court, trailed by a tournament official who must accompany players to the bathroom. Kyrgios smashed his rackets against the floor in a back hallway and returned to the court.
Strategic delays of game are nothing new in tennis, but they seem to have gotten worse.
To stem flagrant abuse, the Women’s Tennis Association this year reduced the number of permitted bathroom breaks to one from two.
The break, which can be used for the restroom or to change clothing, must be taken at the end of a set, unless it is deemed an emergency by the chair umpire. If players go in the middle of a set, they must do so before their own service game.
However, while there are guidelines to determine when a bathroom break is permissible, there are no penalties for players who spend the time doing something it was not intended for. Line judges and other officials escort players to the facilities without following them in.
There also is no time limit for bathroom breaks — compared with the five minutes allowed for injury timeouts — because there is not uniformity in how far courts are from bathrooms.
“The rule is there to provide for a need for the players,” said Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA. “It is not meant to be strategic or a momentum changer.”
He said the breaks had been causing “undue delay, which was not good for either television or for the fans who had to sit through them.”
“There’s a certain subjectivity to this whole thing,” he added. “We have to be sensitive to feminine issues and to gastro issues. We’re not going to put anyone in an uncomfortable position.”
The Association of Tennis Professionals, which governs men's matches, follows a similar protocol, though the men are allowed two bathroom breaks during a best-of-five match (the women have just one break but play shorter matches, needing to win two sets out of three). The U.S. Open and other Grand Slam tournaments, which all have their own rule books, follow the WTA and ATP guidelines regarding bathroom breaks.
The breaks are prevalent even at the lower rungs of the sport, where they border on the absurd.
At one pro circuit tournament in Lexington, Ky., this summer, Yuxuan Zhang, who was ranked just outside the top 200, lost the first set of her quarterfinal match, 6-1, in only 24 minutes. Instead of recovering in her courtside chair during the two-minute changeover, she left for the bathroom. She returned nearly 10 minutes later, saying the bathroom was far away from her court. She lost the second set, 6-0, after another 33 minutes.
Verena Meliss did the same thing after she lost her first set. So did Emily Webley-Smith of Britain. On none of these occasions did the winner of the first set leave the court.
Granted, it was beastly hot and humid in Kentucky that week. And some players took breaks to change drenched clothing. But after less than half an hour of play?
“I tell my players all the time that if they lose the first set 6-0, they should go to the bathroom, wash their face, sit there for a few minutes and then go back,” said Joseph Sirianni, a former ATP player who coaches several Australians at lower levels. “It’s a great way to regroup and also to break the rhythm of the opponent.”
It is also not a bad time to circumvent rules about getting help with the game.
One tour official said he used to leave the court during juniors matches, on the pretext of going to the bathroom, to call his mother for advice. Another player told of a friend whose father would hand him a banana as he headed to the restroom. Once peeled, the banana revealed a piece of paper with coaching tips.
Such maneuvers are clearly prohibited at all levels of professional and junior tennis.
Yanina Wickmayer, a 2009 U.S. Open semifinalist, said it’s a common ploy to use a bathroom break for other purposes.
“I never have to pee during a match,” Wickmayer said. “But there are plenty of times I need to get off the court, get my mind straight and make my opponent think about it.”
It’s like players’ calling for a doctor even when they are not injured.
“We do whatever it takes to win the match,” she said.
Not all players like this game, though.
Karolina Pliskova, a former No. 1-ranked player, said she doesn’t want to “waste time” leaving the court midmatch.
“I feel like I just want to play,” said Pliskova, the runner-up to Angelique Kerber at the 2016 U.S. Open. “I know some people use this to change the match or something. Maybe if I did it more often, I would win more matches.”
Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, recalled playing a tournament two years ago in which several consecutive opponents called restroom or medical timeouts.
“I was like, all these people are not sick or have to pee all the time,” Stephens said. “It’s just not how that works.”
At smaller events, distant bathrooms can cause problems for players with actual needs.
Madison Brengle, who is ranked No. 78, said breaks must be allowed.
“I once had food poisoning during a match,” she said “I really needed to sit down for five minutes because if I didn’t, I thought I was going to tip over and die. In that instance, having the rule was important.”
Still, for players from previous generations, taking a timeout in the middle of a match was unheard of.
“I never took a bathroom break, ever in my career,” said Hana Mandlikova, the 1985 U.S. Open champion, adding that she never saw other top-level players do so, either. “It’s not like they’re playing more sets now than we did. It’s all about breaking the rhythm of the other girl.”
“It’s just that there’s so much money involved now,” she added, “that everybody’s looking for every little edge.”
Curtis Rush contributed reporting.