The Deuce Court

By Giri Nathan

With Roland-Garros on the horizon, most tennis fans are scanning for appetizing early-round matchups or debating Naomi Osaka’s bold stance against the archaic press conference. I’m still pondering whether an Italian superstar-in-waiting has figured out how to use the toilet. Jannik Sinner is no stranger to toilet-based controversy. He was, after all, standing on the opposite side of the net in Melbourne when Denis Shapovalov beseeched the umpire for a bathroom break, threatening to “piss in a bottle” and “piss my pants” during their first-round Australian Open match. That plea didn’t work; Shapovalov only got his wish at the next changeover. He got the win, too. Maybe it was this experience that inspired Sinner to try his own hand at some ill-fated bathroom-related high jinks In Lyon last week. Aslan Karatsev kicked off their first-round match with a 6–0 set, and Sinner, looking for some time to digest that bagel, asked the umpire if he could use the toilet. He left the court. Karatsev stalked around on the clay and squatted up and down to stay warm. When Sinner returned some four minutes later to resume play, he was waylaid by the supervisor, and then by the umpire, and then the line umpire showed up too, to chat about something. At the end of it all, Sinner was issued a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct. Something about that toilet break just wasn’t right.

Every sufficiently degenerate tennis fan is familiar with the concept of a dubious medical time-out—and perhaps it’s a painful memory, because it was your rooting interest who suffered from the break in momentum. It’s a classic bit of gamesmanship. Just got beaten down in the last set and need to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm so he doesn’t win the next set in 15 minutes flat? Act like something popped in your hamstring, sink into your chair, and wait for the physio to take their sweet time getting onto the court, while your opponent—until recently in a full flow state, thrashing you to bits—does some jumping jacks and mimes some forehands in a desperate attempt to keep that finely tuned machine humming. Oftentimes that opponent will be looking pretty peeved. And who can say if the injury or toilet need was slightly exaggerated or imagined wholesale? Pain is a private sensation. You are the authority on the fullness of your own bladder. And really, until I consumed enough tennis to see my mind curdled by conspiratorial thinking, I simply took these honorable athletes at their word. As a simpleminded ingenue I saw them exploding back and forth across an expanse of cement for three hours at a time and figured, sure, stuff breaks down—you take that time-out. But of course, with age, I realized that tennis is a game with high financial stakes, and in any such game advantages will be seized, in bad faith. So long as no one can verify that you’re lying, you might as well scrape away some competitive advantage.

Denis Shapovalov had to pee in Melbourne. (Getty)

You will certainly see this play out at least once in Paris, and if you don’t already have a favorite example languishing in your brain in all caps, recent history supplies plenty. There was Victoria Azarenka squandering five match points against Sloane Stephens at Roland-Garros in 2012, before coincidentally getting “injured,” taking a medical time-out, and returning to successfully close out the match. (Pro tip: After using a suspicious medical time-out, don’t say, “Well, I almost did the choke of the year right now” in your postgame comments; people tend to catch on.) Then you have Kei Nishikori at the Rio Olympics, who had just seen Rafa Nadal storm back from a 2–5 deficit to take the second set, and opted for an 11-minute toilet break, which led some to theorize that he had taken a shower. It was likely the medical time-out and continued treatment during changeovers that drove Angie Kerber to walk to the net, present a dead-fish handshake, and call a then-18-year-old Bianca Andreescu “the biggest drama queen ever” at Miami in 2019. In the realm of pseudo-bathroom breaks, perhaps none is more legendary than Nick Kyrgios at Cincinnati in 2019 taking his two racquets to the “toilet”—without the umpire’s permission to leave the court—only to smash them in the hallway and come right back, though it would be difficult to ascribe too much grand strategy to a temper tantrum. After their 2020 French Open quarterfinal, Pablo Carreño Busta accused Novak Djokovic of using fishy medical time-outs for years: “When he is down, he asks for the trainer.” It’s enough to make you think that the players should just get some fixed number of purpose-agnostic time-outs, to suit all agendas.

So Sinner, who was getting stomped out by Karatsev in Lyon, attempted to become just one more tactical user of time-out fraud. But he made a catastrophic error during his ersatz toilet break: He failed to even pretend to use the toilet. The chair umpire issued a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct because, as I confirmed with an ATP spokesperson, the line umpire who escorted him off the court reported that Sinner had not used his break for its intended purpose. And the ATP handbook decrees that “Toilet breaks should be taken on a set break and can be used for no other purpose.” Sinner, struck down by the letter of the law, mumbled something to the effect that he didn’t know and was sorry, and then resumed the match, which he would win in three sets. Next time Jannik Sinner is aiming to break his opponent’s momentum, he will be sure to shuffle into that stall and flush down a phantom poo.

Above: Jannik Sinner’s toilet break comes under scrutiny in Lyon. (Tennis TV)