Considering humans as a race are still struggling to fully accept Charles Darwin’s theories, it’s no surprise that we don’t care much for natural progression even in the things that we see with our own eyes. We always want things to remain the way they are, and for the tried-and-tested methods to continue working till eternity.
And so it goes in the tennis world too. Whenever a new player comes along with extraordinary skills and powers, we insist on branding them as ‘baby someone’ or ‘next someone’ rather than looking at them as the logical step forward in the sport’s evolution.
Roger Federer has had his fair share of ‘babies’, with just about every new player with a one-handed backhand being compared with the Swiss (and then being lamented over for not quite being the same thing). Stefanos Tsitsipas couldn’t escape that comparison at the start of his career either.
Yes, he does have a one-handed backhand and a smooth, liquid-whip forehand that he can do pretty much anything with. And sure, he likes coming to the net a lot, hitting volleys that are almost as dexterous as Federer’s.
But a tennis player is more than just a forehand and a backhand and a volley. And this week in London, Tsitsipas reminded us all that he isn’t a less-impressive copy of the original, but a personification of the direction that the Federer Template needs to go in to suit today’s times.
Tsitsipas got the better of Dominic Thiem in a tense, see-saw final that electrified the sharply divided crowd, and by the end, it was difficult to think of any facet of the game that the Greek hadn’t displayed on the night. He was a certain kind of player one moment, and a completely different kind the next; the sheer variety in not just his shots but his very approach to the game would have been enough to unsettle any opponent.
Tsitsipas started the match the way he had played for much of the week, by going on the offense and taking time away from Thiem. But the Austrian was the very definition of clutch in the first set, and he won it the same way he has been winning his matches since the US Open – by refusing to miss when the stakes were the highest.
Tsitsipas stuck to his strategy though, and a slight let-down from Thiem was enough to put him back in the reckoning. The start of the second set showed the full effect of the Federer playbook – attack first and ask questions later – on an indoor court. Even though Thiem was hitting the ball as hard as anyone humanly could, he still seemed a step slow in the face of Tsitsipas’ lightning-quick strikes.
Tsitsipas walked all over a dazed Thiem in that set with a performance that was an uncanny reminder of what Federer himself had produced a couple of days earlier. The Greek hit 10 winners and just one unforced error (compared to 12 and 1 for Federer in his first set), looking like he could literally do no wrong.
“I have no clue how I played so well in the second set. I have no idea. I think my mind was at ease and I wasn’t really thinking of much, which led to such a great performance in the second set. It was pretty much an excellent set for me.
Thiem recovered some of his mojo in the third, but he was greeted by a new curveball – a sudden change in Tsitsipas’ game-plan. In a matter of minutes Tsitsipas went from all-out aggressor to creative defender, even throwing in a few moonballs, all in a bid to give his opponent different looks while he was winding up for his mammoth groundstrokes. Thiem unsurprisingly made one forehand error too many and quickly went 1-3 down, giving
Tsitsipas his ninth game out of the previous 12. The trophy was there for the taking.
But in a match as monumental as this, some jitters are inevitable – and in all fairness, the 21-year-old Tsitsipas should have been expected to show his nerves well before that stage. As it turned out they struck at the worst possible moment, and he choked the breakaway to allow Thiem back into the contest.
By 3-3 the Austrian was hammering his leaping down-the-line backhand for stone-cold winners again, and the tide seemed to have turned decisively. But Tsitsipas managed to hang in there on the strength of his serve. He kept holding efficiently till 6-6, and in the tiebreaker, he got a double mini-break for another seemingly unassailable lead.
Then he choked again. Tsitsipas lost both his service points at 4-1, which was followed by Thiem crushing a backhand down the line winner so ferocious that it seemed to shake the very foundations of the O2. The score was dead even at 4-4, and there seemed to be no way of stopping the Thiem juggernaut.
The thing with sport, however, is that choking is not an irredeemable sin. It’s not your refusal to choke that defines you, because literally everyone chokes. Rather, it is your ability to recover from a choke that separates you from the rest. And Tsitsipas recovered like a champion.
At the time, it didn’t seem like he was doing much. At 4-4 all he did was hit a return down the middle, without much pace or depth. And at 5-4 all he did was stay in the rally long enough, scrambling from corner to corner to retrieve Thiem’s bullets. But in hindsight, he was taking a leaf straight out of the Rafael Nadal playbook.
Tsitsipas knew that at such a high-pressure moment, making Thiem hit one extra shot was the percentage play with the greatest chance of success. And he was right; Thiem missed a forehand at both 4-4 and 4-5, and Tsitsipas served out the match with a confident slider out wide.
“It was pretty frustrating for me to be playing with such nerves for the first time in such a big event. I was a break-up, I couldn’t manage to hold it. Things were decided in the tie-break and I am so relieved by this outstanding performance and fight that I gave out on the court,” Tsitsipas said after the match. He couldn’t have chosen a better adjective than ‘outstanding’ to describe his tournament, even if it sounded like a bit of self-glorification.
The Greek is just one year removed from participating in (and winning) the NextGen Finals, and yet here in London, he played like a seasoned pro. More importantly, he donned a wide variety of hats through the week; at times he looked like the ‘next Federer’, and at times like the ‘next Nadal’.
In reality, he is something else altogether – an amalgamation of the various styles we’ve become accustomed to in the Golden Era of men’s tennis, and a representation of what a winning game-plan should look like in the modern age. Being a pure offensive player or a pure counterpuncher doesn’t cut it anymore, and Tsitsipas was successful in London by taking turns to be one or the other, or a combination of the two extremes.
The Greek youngster has famously beaten each member of the Big 3 in 2019, which is evidence enough of his skills and adaptability. It’s also no coincidence that his vanquished opponent has accomplished the same feat this year. Thiem, who himself looked like the evolution of another multiple Slam champion (Stan Wawrinka) in his win over Novak Djokovic, has taken the baseline power game forward by combining Wawrinka’s shot-making ability with Nadal’s intensity.
The likes of Tsitsipas, Thiem and Daniil Medvedev are helping the sport evolve by taking the templates set by the Big 3 and working hard to improve on them. That doesn’t mean they are better or even as good as the veterans; let’s face it, the Big 3’s brilliance is nigh unrepeatable. But it does mean that the game is not going to stagnate once they retire.
That is a bigger reason to celebrate Tstisipas’ breakthrough than the possibility of him going on to become a world-beater. We know from Alexander Zverev’s triumph last year that an ATP Finals title is no guarantee of future success. But we can always look back at this week in London and savour a performance that was unmistakably a product of the changing times.
The next great Slam champion may or may not be Tsitsipas (or for that matter Zverev or Medvedev), but it will certainly not be a Big 3 clone. And we don’t know it yet, but that’s a good thing for the health of the sport.
P.S. Given the way he responded in the tiebreaker against Thiem, and the catalogue of breakpoints he saved against Federer, would anyone bet against Tsitsipas eventually winning a Slam? I know I won’t.
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Updated Date: Nov 18, 2019 07:57:28 IST