NEW YORK — Like many toddlers, Stefanos Tsitsipas, at age 3, had an object he lugged everywhere he went. He was a Greek version of the iconic American comic strip character Linus, but instead of a blanket, Tsitsipas’ totem was a towel.
“It was like a toy,” Tsitsipas, the No. 4 seed at the US Open, told ESPN after he won his first match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday. “I would always carry it around. So I have history with the towel. It resembles something special in my life. It does provide me with some amount of comfort.”
Because of that, count Tsitsipas among the pros most adversely affected by the drastic change in towel policy because of the coronavirus pandemic. Among all the new health regulations and tweaked policies, the towel rule might be the one with the most moment-to-moment impact on the competitors. Masks and frequent testing are an inconvenience, as is observing social distancing in the locker room or player restaurant. Hawk-Eye Live, the infallible, all-electronic line-calling system in use on most of the courts here is an advance as innocuous as it is radical. The players uniformly love it.
The rule requiring players to handle their own towels, keeping them in color-coded boxes at the back of the court, is less popular and, to many, problematic.
“For me, it has huge importance,” Tsitsipas said. Committed to following the rule that a game proceeds at the pace of the server, he added, “The biggest struggle with the towel is when you want to use it before returning. That’s a big concern, because I would like to use it more often, but I can’t really because I’m disrupting my opponent’s rhythm.”
Right from the get-go, players bridled at the new towel rules brought on by the pandemic. Novak Djokovic, another player who towels frequently, questioned a chair umpire during his opening-day win when he was warned for a time violation after retrieving his towel. The top seed was accustomed to the more relaxed approach to ATP Tour shot clock enforcement last week at the Western & Southern Open.
“I lost my focus. Kind of got stressed out a couple times,” he said after the match. “We’ve played in the certain tempo, so to say, got used to it during the Western & Southern tournament, which just ended two days ago. Two days later, we have a different rule that was just not communicated to us.”
While both of the tournaments in the “double in the bubble” event here at the National Tennis Center used a 25-second time clock, Western & Southern Open umpires last week had more leeway. They frequently waited until players — including Djokovic — were finished with their towels before starting the countdown. At the US Open, the visible shot clock is activated when the score is called.
Until the COVID-19 lockdown, players were in the habit of entrusting their towels to ball persons who then sprinted out to attend to the player’s needs whenever summoned. Sometimes, that was after almost every point. Under the new rules here at the US Open, only the player is allowed to handle his or her towel, and it must be deposited in the appropriate color-coded box at the back of the court. As many have learned, it’s challenging to fetch and replace the towel within the 25-second time frame allowed between points.
Ajla Tomljanovic was beaten in the first round by former champion Angelique Kerber. Asked which rule change most inconvenienced her, she told ESPN: “I guess towels would be the biggest thing for me because I sweat a lot. I don’t like to be late; I usually play fast. So I get a little nervous when I see the [shot] clock running really low.”
Perspiration is one part of the towel equation, inspiration is another.
“The towel gives me time to think — it gives me time to refresh myself and to think about my tactics,” Tsitsipas said. “It provides some sort of comfort.”
Caroline Garcia, the French player who has been ranked as high as No. 4, also misses the opportunity to commune with her towel as frequently as she’d like.
“When I go to the towel, I have time to think. I try to focus,” she said. “It’s a routine, and you can do it if you ask for the towel or go for it yourself. But time can make it difficult.”
Towels weren’t always such a vital piece of equipment with psychological as well as practical uses. Until relatively recently, players toweled off only when they sat down during changeovers. They rarely carried them onto the court, although some, including Dick Stockton and Sandy Mayer — U.S. stars and Grand Slam semifinalists in the 1970s — played with hand towels tucked into the waistbands of their shorts.
Andy Roddick and Greg Rusedski were among the first of the frequent users. But it was Rafael Nadal, the man of many rituals, who ushered in the golden age of the “towelers.” Doubles specialist Bob Bryan once told Toronto’s Globe and Mail: “Nadal brought those methodical rituals into the game. … That goes to younger players, and younger players — they emulate their idols and it just becomes part of the culture.”
Like any other “cultural” trend, including grunting or shrieking after hitting a shot, the tendency to use the towel with compulsive frequency created a backlash. Many felt that overuse of the towel was not only tedious to watch but a key element in increasingly long match times. But the trend was an example of the law of unintended consequences: In 2012, the ATP Tour formally adopted a rule allowing only 20 seconds between points. That only encouraged players to recruit ball persons as service aids.
Spectators and critics are often appalled to see the way some players treat ball persons. The internet is ripe with “gotcha” moments showing players yanking towels from the hands of ball persons or flinging them carelessly toward them when finished. One of the most famous of those episodes occurred at the 2019 US Open, when Daniil Medvedev was handed a code violation after rudely yanking a towel from the hands of a ball person (the chair umpire who issued it was veteran Damien Dumusois, the same official who docked Djokovic on Monday).
The gesture earned Medvedev the wrath of the crowd, but he pushed back by taunting fans and showing moxie that many New Yorkers prize even more than good manners. Medvedev lost to Nadal in the final, but he left Gotham a star.
Whatever else happens, there will be no such incidents at this US Open. Players such as frequent towel user Petra Kvitova, who told ESPN that the towel restrictions were “something I really had to get used to, as part of the bubble,” will have to find a way to adapt. Others who aren’t comparably discomfited by the towel regulations will be just fine.
“I have no problem with the towel rule,” Kristina Mladenovic said. “I’m humble. I can pick up my own towel.”
Marketa Vondrousova, the defending French Open finalist, is also content with the change. She’s accustomed to using the towel only on changeovers.
That’s old school, like some of the actual uses to which a towel is put.
“It’s not very comfortable playing all sweaty and having sweat drip from your face and get to your eyes,” Tsitsipas said. “Having the towel there is very important for us.”