And in 1969 a very old tennis player, Pancho Gonzales, 41, didn’t require a bathroom break either, this despite his first-round match at Wimbledon against Charlie Pasarell breaking the record for SW19’s longest-ever contest and including a set which went 24-22 against him. He was Pancho, not Pan-cho.
Okay, the jokes get worse, but the point is hopefully made: the gripping action in the past was never interrupted by players claiming they needed to answer the call of nature, not like when Stefanos Tsitsipas scuttled off court while Andy Murray was rolling back the years against him at the US Open – and certainly not for the Greek’s eight minutes of absenteeism.
Eight minutes. Think about it. That’s a full two minutes longer than Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Tsitsipas’ succeeded in outlasting all the na-na-na-nahing on the Beatles’ Hey Jude by almost a minute. He was not present at Flushing Meadows, presumably while engaged in the process of flushing, for the entire duration of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven – from the bustle in the hedgerow to Robert Plant’s spontaneous combustion at the end.
No wonder Murray spontaneously combusted. No wonder he tweeted: “Fact of the day: it takes Stefanos Tsitsipas twice as long to go to the bathroom as it takes Jeff Bezos to fly into space. Interesting.”
That’s great sarcasm. It won’t be beaten by an elite athlete all year and is yet more evidence of the man’s underrated yet crafty wit. But this will be scant consolation to Murray who performed splendidly to seriously threaten his highly-rated and much younger opponent with a first-round exit – until what’s been dubbed “Pottygate” prior to the start of the fifth set.
What the heck was Tsitsipas doing in there? How long does it take to change a sweat-soaked shirt? And how long does it take to kill the momentum achieved by a 34-year-old with a metal hip who was reckoning the scene of his first Slam triumph, and this particular contest with one of tennis’ next wave, would be perfect for demonstrating he wasn’t done yet? Eight minutes. That’ll do it.
Tsitsipas was undaunted, claiming he’d acted within the rules, espousing the benefits of being able to unburden oneself of perspiration and even challenging journalists to check whether Murray had availed himself of a longer break in that 2012 defeat of Novak Djokovic in New York. He didn’t – his timeout was less than three minutes.
Still, at least Tsitsipas didn’t dare vanish for another Stairway-sized interregnum during his next match against Adrian Mannarino. Instead of eight minutes it was seven, Tsitsipas having just lost a tiebreak. And on Friday night, when he exited the tournament, he vacated the premises again for four minutes. He may not be contravening the guidelines but he is certainly bending them. Other opponents have suspected him of being secretly coached via text message while off-court, which is banned. But he cannot pretend he’s not seeking to gain advantage when the hold-ups invariably happen just at the moment when the other guy has been pushing hard for victory.
There can be just as much suspicion when a player claims he’s injured and needs treatment. In the 2015 Australian Open final, Murray had to kick his heels after achieving breaks of serve against Novak Djokovic when the Serb suddenly summoned medical assistance. “Don’t worry about him,” Murray muttered, “he does it all the time.” Murray lost the match admitting he’d allowed the distraction to bother him.
Gamesmanship. It sounds like a cousin of sportsmanship, doesn’t it? The terminology suggests a degree of, if not skill then serious application, but gamesmanship is cheating.
The name preferred by some for Tsitsipas’ actions is “comfort break”, although when the timeouts are abused to the extent they last eight minutes this is just euphemistic wrapping, similar to when a footballer is said to have “drawn the foul”.
Football has a lot to answer for. It’s infected with gamesmanship now and players are “inviting the challenge” all the time. Note the use of the word “inviting”. It infers good manners when the opposite is true. Another phrase which irritates is the one almost seeking to excuse dark arts because they’re in pursuit of success. The player who’ll “do anything to win” is not a hungry scavenger desperate for food; he’s a millionaire footballer.
Personally, I’m fed up with just about every pundit bar Graeme Souness and Roy Keane for their mealy-mouthed explanations, excuses and justifications for a player impersonating Greg Louganis or Margot Fonteyn when the opportunity arises. Two of the most high-profile England players, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, are among the most conspicuous offenders. Great at football, sure, but also terrific at simulation.
Disillusioned by all of this, you might have turned to sports once played by gentlemen such as rugby only to witness South Africa slowing down play against the Lions, the stoppages adding 37 minutes of running time to the summer’s crucial second test.
And look at tennis now which must be in serious danger of losing the phrase “gladiatorial struggle” from the lexicon if players are going to disappear for longer and longer bathroom breaks. Spartacus, as far as we know, never stopped mid-battle to visit the cludgie. The rules, such as they are, say nothing about the length of these stoppages but Murray’s protest should end up enforcing a limit. Otherwise these guys will just keep taking the p***.