If Stefanos Tsitsipas, the charismatic Next Genner and social media star, wasn’t as well known before, his win over Roger Federer put him up, front and center in the tennis world. His game was analysed, gushed upon; the man himself was anointed the future No 1 and Grand Slam champion.
Less than 48 hours later, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the Rod Laver Arena, Tsitsipas showed he could win just as well with a target on his back. He defeated the seasoned Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) to continue a fairytale run and become the youngest male semi-finalist at a Grand Slam since Novak Djokovic at the 2007 US Open. He is also the youngest semi-finalist at the Australian Open since Andy Roddick in 2003.
“The biggest challenge was preparing for this match,” Tsitsipas said on Tuesday.
“First night was tough to process. In the beginning was tough to fall asleep. I had a pain in my toe which kept me awake. In general, I felt a bit of pain in my body and tension. Yeah, first night was tough. Slept less than six hours; was worried about my next match. My biggest challenge was staying focused. I’m really happy with how I played today because it showed that didn’t happen accidentally.”
Playing only his second Australian Open, Tsitsipas had ridden a wave of confidence while ousting Federer. Beating a name like that is a life’s ambition for some players. Tsitsipas’ first four matches of the tournament had all gone to four sets, putting a workload on the 20-year-old he had never before experienced. In the quarter-finals, he was up against the experienced Roberta Bautista Agut, who had not lost a match since the beginning of the year. Seeded 14, Tsitsipas was higher in the pecking order than the Spaniard (22) and started the match as the slight underdog.
The obvious question was whether he could maintain the level he had taken his game to on Sunday.
And while it was not three hours of sustained brilliance against Bautista Agut, Tsitsipas hit some incredible highs. He had lost serve in the opening games in the first and third sets, but buckled down to the task and scripted a comeback through some highlight-reel worthy shots. Like the inside-out forehand he hit to set up two set points in the 12th game of the first set. Or when he slid in to retrieve a backhand drop shot from Bautista Agut, on a set point in the third set no less, and carved it for a backhand down the line winner.
There were times in the second set, when Tsitsipas looked like he might just fade away as most pundits as predicted. He was struggling with his first serve, and with the sun beating down he looked fatigued and was often late to the ball. The laser precision he had maintained through the match against Federer was missing. On the other side of the net, Bautista Agut was as solid as ever and ran down almost all the drop shots Tsitsipas conjured in the hope of finishing the rally early.
But the attitude and spirit that has seen him be the youngest Slam semi-finalist in a decade was still on display. The Greek youngster is often late while starting points, and on his second time violation was docked a second serve. He took that in his stride and slammed down an ace on the second serve. Some of his hawk-eye challenges bordered on the delusional, but it never stopped him from asking for another one till he finally ran out of them. The 20-year-old was also handed a coaching violation – for some words of advice from his box — after the third set.
As unstrategic and inexperienced as Tsitsipas looked at such times, while his opponent stood rock solid at the other end, it was his maturity on the bigger points that won him the day.
The Spaniard had played three five-set matches in his first four rounds and was tapering off physically by the end of the third set. With both the players feeling the heat in the fourth set, the exchanges were short and crisp. Neither challenged the others serve: Tsitsipas won nine of the 35 receiving points while Bautista Agut could win only five of his 32 receiving points. Bautista Agut was the only one who faced a break point in the set and that in the last game. Serving to stay in the match at 5-6, the Spaniard served a double fault, only his second of the match, to hand his young rival a break and match point. But Bautista Agut quickly snuffed it out, staying strong in the rally and finishing it off with a forehand winner.
But Tstitsipas shook off the disappointment and went up a gear in the tie-breaker. He started off with a strong serve and then won the next two points on Bautista Agut’s serve, the second of which was a delightful backhand down the line winner that just clipped the baseline. Though he lost the next two points, he finished with a flourish winning four points on a trot: a forehand winner for 4-2, a backhand down the line volley for 5-2 and then two strong serves. When the time came, he seized the opportunity rather than waiting for his tired opponent to commit errors.
In the match that lasted three hours and 15 minutes, Tsitsipas hit 68 winners, 18 more than his opponent.
“I did surprise myself a little bit with my performance, yeah,” he said later. He wasn’t the only one.
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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 17:26:36 IST