The standout men’s first-round match at this year’s US Open Tennis Championships pitted former world number one, Andy Murray, against number three seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas. The match showcased different generations and contrasting styles: Murray, a tactical genius returning from long-term injury, and Tsitsipas, a rising star with every conceivable shot at his disposal. After four gruelling sets, Tsitsipas levelled the match at two sets all – and promptly left the court for a toilet break.
To Murray’s considerable irritation, Tsitsipas did not reappear until more than seven minutes had elapsed. This was a source of disquiet for Murray throughout the final set, which Tsitsipas ultimately won 6-4. Murray labelled the extended break as “cheating”.
He stated in his post-match press conference that, in light of the incident (coupled with other delaying tactics including a medical timeout), he had “lost respect” for Tsitsipas. He even aired the grievance again on Twitter the following day. Tsitsipas took another lengthy toilet break during his second-round match and was jeered by the crowd on his return to court. But does a seven-minute toilet break really rise to the level of cheating?
No rule-breaking, no cheating?
Tsitsipas rejected any suggestion of cheating on the basis that his conduct did not violate the rules. The rules permit players “reasonable time” to visit the toilet and change attire. But this defence misses the mark.
That a type of conduct is allowed under the rules does not guarantee its rightness – the rules do not provide a complete account of right and wrong. As a result, cheating is a broader phenomenon than rule-breaking, because right and wrong in sport are determined not only by the rules but also by non-rule based norms, specifically, “conventions” and the “spirit of the sport”.
Conventions are widely accepted norms that operate parallel to the rules. For example, in football, kicking the ball out of play when a player is injured or, in singles tennis, not aiming to hit an opponent with the ball, constitute conventions that supplement the rules. The spirit of a sport is the values – such as excellence, safety, fairness, or inclusion – that lie beneath the rules and according to which the rules should be formulated.
Cheating can involve the intentional violation of conventions or the spirit of a sport, even in the absence of rule violation, because an unfair competitive advantage can be gained by the violation of rule or non-rule based norms.
The spirit of a sport is especially significant when rules are vague. Certain aspects of sport are not amenable to rules that precisely and comprehensively distinguish right from wrong. For this reason, rule makers are hesitant to be rigorously prescriptive about toilet breaks and medical timeouts.
To protect player welfare, it’s better to adopt a liberal approach than wrongly deny a player medical assistance or access to the bathroom. But this leaves these rules susceptible to abuse by unscrupulous competitors. Players can avail themselves of an extended break in the bathroom or an unnecessary visit from the trainer. Such breaks are strategically advantageous if they disrupt an opponent’s rhythm or cause their body to cool down and stiffen up. Indeed, Tsitsipas’s reputation for taking strategic breaks is so well established that Murray planned for such disruptions in advance of the match.
Rules around toilet breaks and medical timeouts are trust-based. They can be violated without a serious risk of punishment. Trust-based rules are commonplace in sport. Rules that regulate doping, match-fixing, best effort, sex classification, and classification in disability sport are all ripe for undetected violation. Compliance cannot be secured through the threat of sanctions because non-compliance is too difficult or too costly to detect.
In other words, even if Tsitsipas did not break the rules, he violated the trust by failing to honour the spirit of the rules.
Competitive sport is cooperative
Trust-based rules demonstrate that sport rests on a moral foundation of cooperation. Athletes must choose to play fair when they could cheat with relative impunity. So meaningful competition – competition uncompromised by cheating – hinges on the display of shared moral standards by competitors.
The extent to which meaningful competition depends on athletes’ trustworthiness was nicely illustrated as Tsitsipas was about to serve for the match. Murray signalled to the umpire that he wished to see the trainer. At this critical juncture, such a delay would have posed an acute psychological challenge for Tsitsipas. However, when the umpire turned to call the trainer, Murray cancelled the request. He wasn’t injured but wanted to make a point: two can play at that game but “can” does not imply “should”. While Murray did not enjoy a scoreboard victory, his was undoubtedly a moral victory.
Ultimately, if more time than necessary was taken to visit the bathroom and change attire, Murray was right that cheating occurred. While contrasting styles make for memorable sporting contests, meaningful competition rests on the fragile bedrock of shared moral commitment.