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Potty-gate at the U.S. Open: Stefanos Tsitisipas remains unbowed — and unburdened

Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open, has faced criticism for his use of “comfort breaks” at critical moments in matches. (Ed Jones / AFP)

NEW YORK — The floodwaters receded, the toppled signs were righted, and the fallen limbs were hauled off by noon Thursday as the U.S. Open put Hurricane Ida’s remnants behind it.

But Potty-gate shows no sign of subsiding at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas refuses to be cowed by fans’ boos or fellow players’ criticism over his extended yet permissible bathroom breaks at critical junctures in matches.

Liberal interpretation of the rule on bathroom breaks — or “comfort breaks,” as traditionalists refer to them — is nothing new in tennis.

The Grand Slam rule book allows them: two during best-of-five-set men’s matches; one for women’s best-of-three set matches. Disputes arise from time to time because the rule specifies no time limit and thus can be exploited for tactical gain — whether to halt an opponent’s momentum, collect their thoughts or, more nefariously, flout the ban on in-match coaching by reading text messages behind closed doors.

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Tsitsipas, 23, a free spirit with free-flowing strokes, has been accused of all three in recent weeks by one opponent or another.

“That’s rubbish,” three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray, 34, said after his gutting, five-set loss to Tsitsipas in the first round, in which momentum shifted after Tsitsipas took a nearly eight-minute break.

While Murray hailed Tsitsipas as a great talent, he said he had “lost all respect” for him. The next morning, Murray leveled another jab on social media, tweeting: “Fact of the day. It takes Stefanos Tsitipas [sic] twice as long to go the bathroom as it takes Jeff Bazos [sic] to fly into space. Interesting,” and drawing more than 82,000 “likes” for the quip.

Nonetheless, Tsitsipas, who is of Greek and Russian descent, remains unbowed.

After losing a third-set tiebreaker to Adrian Mannarino on Wednesday night, Tsitsipas left the court for more than seven minutes as torrential rain pummeled the retractable roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium. ESPN’s broadcast tracked the delay with a running clock graphic labeled “Time Since Last Point” as if it were tracking the national debt.

U.S. Open fans, who will sour on a player in a New York minute, made their feelings known with boos that could be heard over the deafening rain.

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In his news conference after his four-set victory, Tsitsipas seemed mystified that reporters would question his second advantageously timed bathroom break in as many matches.

He had broken no rule, he pointed out.

He challenged a reporter to investigate whether Murray had not taken a longer break during his five-set U.S. Open final against Novak Djokovic in 2012.

Not so, countered the reporter, who had researched it. The break was less than three minutes.

Tsitsipas even explained the tactical advantage of an empty bladder:

“You carry less weight on you with all the sweat,” Tsitsipas said. “You feel rejuvenated, you feel fresh, and you don't have all the sweat bothering you and coming in your face, on your fingers, everywhere all over your body. It makes you feel better.”

Former top-10 player James Blake had a lot to say about the controversy when reached by email Thursday, starting with the fact that extended bathroom breaks are within the rules.

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But Blake said it’s past time to revisit the rule.

“What the players are doing now is within the rules but is absolutely gamesmanship and, in my opinion, against the ethics of the sport and entirely selfish,” Blake wrote. “There is no thought of the effect on the opponent or the fans. Fans are paying to watch tennis, not bathroom breaks.”

The impact on opponents is even worse, Blake wrote, adding that it can bring the level of play down physically and mentally because it breaks their rhythm.

Murray said after his defeat that he had prepared mentally for Tsitsipas to halt the proceedings if the momentum wasn’t in his favor. But at his age and playing on a metal hip, Murray explained that he could not prepare his body for the full-stop several hours into an all-out slugfest.

Tsitsipas’s off-court excursion Wednesday also clearly affected Mannarino, 33, who had just claimed the third-set tiebreaker. After taking a few sips of water in his courtside chair, Mannarino stood, stretched his legs, and made figure-eights in the air with his racket. As the minutes ticked away, Mannarino asked the chair umpire for a fistful of used balls and started practicing his serve — anything to keep the blood flowing and his muscles loose.

While Tsitsipas makes no apologies for liberal bathroom breaks, he flatly denies using them to receive coaching advice from his father, Apostolos, who was captured by ESPN cameras during a semifinal loss to Alexander Zverev at a recent tournament in Cincinnati furiously texting while his son was off the court.

Tsitsipas calls the assertion “absolutely ridiculous.”

Whatever agenda is behind the breaks, Tsitsipas has not put forth one obvious defense: that world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who is pursuing a men’s record 21st Grand Slam title at this U.S. Open, used similar, lengthy bathroom breaks during his run to the 2021 French Open title in June.

Djokovic departed the court during a gritty semifinal victory over 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, returning remarkably refreshed. He did much the same after falling two sets in arrears to Tsitsipas in the final and stormed back to claim the title.

“When you go to the toilet, what happens?” a veteran tennis journalist from Italy asked Djokovic afterward, noting that he returned to the court “unbelievable.” Was he perhaps visited by the patron saint of Serbia?

Djokovic answered in kind, saying: “Exactly! My angels are there. My guardian angels are there. . . . I can’t reveal the secret. It’s been working for me pretty well.”

Blake’s proposed remedy is simple. Players should ask the Grand Slam committee to mandate a maximum break of five minutes to change clothes or use bathroom.

“If there was a rule saying every 15 or 30 seconds over the five minutes would be a point penalty, I can guarantee all the players would be back in time,” Blake wrote.

U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier said that the organization, which runs the U.S. Open, believes a review of the rule is worth discussing with the officiating community and Grand Slam officials.

“To us at the USTA, it’s certainly something that warrants further discussion,” Widmaier said.

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