“How me?” Stefanos Tsitsipas mouthed towards his corner after the niceties at the net were over.
The 20-year-old from Greece had just taken on the great Roger Federer at one of the Swiss’ favourites venues, at one of his favourite Grand Slams, in a match that pushed physical and creative limits and come out on top. Tsitsipas, as much as the rest of the tennis world, needed a moment to absorb the shock that followed his 6-7(11), 7-6(3), 7-5, 7-6(5) victory over Federer at the Australian Open on Sunday.
“I can’t describe the feeling,” said Tsitsipas, who, for three hours and 45 minutes, had met Federer note for note in one epic duel.
They took tennis to all corners of the court and to a higher plane; combining cheek and courage, the solid and the sensational, asking and answering.
There was so much of Federer’s game mirrored in Tsitsipas’, who admittedly grew up idolising the Swiss. It was not just the single-handed backhand that both used so often and with such flair.
Tsitsipas leans away from a thwacking forehand inside out much like Federer and at times even used the wristy forehand squash shot behind the ball that the Swiss can so easily patent. He is just as light on his feet and quick across the court.
That perhaps proved to be the biggest difference as Federer, at 37 the oldest player in the round of 16, tried to go toe to toe with the youngest player left in the draw. When it came to the big points, Tsitsipas was a step faster to the ball, which in turn helped him execute the point better. He was the new and shiny version. Already possessing an impressive repertoire of shots, on Sunday Tsitsipas showed he had the mental bandwidth to hang with the best.
“You’re watching the changing of the guard,” John McEnroe announced after the on-court interview with the delighted victor.
Stylistically, the Greek seems the most natural successor to Federer – they also have similarly alliterative surnames. And their fourth-round clash on Monday revived memories of another intriguing round-of-16 clash that had taken place about 17 years ago, on a different continent.
Federer vs Pete Sampras. Fourth round at Wimbledon in 2001. The defending champion versus the young upstart. It was the day when the 19-year-old Federer’s obvious talent was certified Grand Slam ready. In five close, incredible sets, Federer had beaten Sampars at his own game, on his own court, initializing a shift of power in the game. After the match, a ponytailed Federer had fallen on his knees, emotional and overwhelmed by what he had created.
Like Federer, what helped Tsitsipas overcome the obvious awe of playing someone you have grown up watching on the TV screen, was belief. The Greek had underlined the importance of self-belief after learning that he would take on Federer in the Round of 16. “Mentally, for players to beat him, they have to be ready and believe in themselves that they are,” he had said on Friday.
And Tsitsipas took the challenge head-on, his curly golden-brown hair flying, belief coursing through his veins. Neither the time violation warning in his very first service game nor Federer’s aura across the court was going to put him out of step in the most important match of his career.
Even as the Swiss played with his usual poise, teasing and testing Tsitsipas early on, the Greek proved that he was up to the challenge. The two engaged in long, long-busting rallies, then played quick, short points, a medley of slices and knock-out groundstrokes and cute drop shots.
It was like the game had turned back in time from the ubiquitous baseline battles of this power-punching era. Both the players were looking to press the advantage early on and were quick to step into the court. While Federer made 66 dashes to the net, winning 50 of those points, Tsitsipas wasn’t too far behind at 48 of 68 net points won.
The one worry for Federer, who still had a nose ahead in the contest in the first two hours of the match because of his serve, was how well Tsitsipas was anticipating and executing.
Federer survived three set points to take the opening set 13-11 in the tie-break. He had a chance to go decisively up in the match, when he held three set points on Tsitsipas’ serve at 5-4 in the second set. But Federer’s inability to cash in on those break points proved to be his biggest hurdle on the day. Through the match, he got 12 break point opportunities and could not convert even one.
“I have massive regrets, you know, tonight. I might not look the part, but I am,” Federer said after the match. “I felt like I have to win the second set. I don't care how I do it, but I have to do it. Cost me the game tonight.
On the other hand, even though Tsitsipas needed more than two and a half hours to get a look at his first break opportunity, he converted one of three break points. It came at the tail end of the third set, which saw Tsitsipas move ahead at two sets to one.
As the match moved into the third hour of play, the Swiss started off sluggish. His forehand, put under pressure by the energetic youngster, was cracking. Federer had 33 unforced errors off that wing. There were no visible holes in Tsitsipas’ game to punch at, and he didn’t show any signs of fading away physically or mentally. Even when the match got too close for comfort, he didn’t miss much: Tsitsipas had 36 unforced errors compared to Federer’s 55.
Tsitsipas called for a trainer at 4-3 in the fourth set, to massage his fatigued legs. But, on the day, he was always a step ahead, a shade better than the player he had moulded his game on. While the Swiss had 61 winners, Tsitsipas had 62.
Federer, courtesy of his 20 Grand Slams and the two back-to-back titles in Melbourne, always plays with the pressure of being the favourite. Tsitsipas played with the bravado and clarity of thought of an unscarred mind. That’s how he did it.
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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2019 22:00:55 IST