You tend to think of players’ weapons and weaknesses as permanent, eternal things. Every player starts out with specific strong areas in their game and specific holes that are exploitable, and the growing up years are spent trying to maximize the former and protect the latter. But the overall status quo usually continues till the end of their careers; some areas remain strengths, and some weaknesses.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic have both turned their forehands from liabilities into deadly assets, while Roger Federer has shored up his backhand like nobody’s business. But these transformations took place over years together; they required long hours on the practice court and many more on the match court (with a pile of losses serving as motivation). The results started showing up only as the players got close to their 30s.
Is it a little scary, then, that Stefanos Tsitsipas has already started turning his weaknesses into strengths, before he has even turned 21?
When Tsitsipas first started playing televised matches a couple of years ago, his backhand looked like his biggest asset. Being a sweeping one-hander it naturally caught the eye, but it was also consistent and pacy, and could hold its own against most of the opponents he faced.
His forehand, on the other hand, looked downright shaky. It often landed short, and seemed to have a little too much loop – making it difficult for him to win cheap points off it. In fact, he seemed to have so little confidence in the shot that he frequently resorted to the forehand slice when stretched wide, not unlike backhand-dominant players such as Alexander Zverev, Ernests Gulbis and Benoit Paire.
While growing up, Tsitsipas himself agreed with this dichotomy. In the adorable interview clip retrieved from the archives that has been doing the rounds of the internet lately, the 13-year-old Tsitsipas shyly said his best weapons were his ‘backhand and volley’.
That certainly isn’t the case now. While his backhand has remained solid and penetrating, it is his forehand that has made a big difference during his stirring run to the Australian Open semi-final. That wing now looks unrecognizable from it was two years ago, but more crucially, it even looks different from what it was six months ago.
Six months ago, as we all remember, Tsitsipas was making his first big splash at the Masters 1000 level, beating Djokovic in Toronto and going on to reach the final. During his quarter-final match in that tournament against Zverev, Tsitsipas looked overmatched until the end of the second set, but somehow hung in there to delay what seemed like the inevitable. That he eventually turned the tables to win the match was down to a variety of reasons, not least of which was Zverev’s inability to close.
Tsitsipas was absolutely clutch on the big points even back then, repeatedly saving break points like it was child’s play. But it was his forehand that epitomized the difference in firepower between the two; it was a bit of a rally shot, and he used it primarily to stay in the points long enough and elicit errors from the German.
How Federer must be wishing he had a rally forehand to deal with in their fourth round match two days ago. Against Federer, and against his other opponents too, Tsitsipas has been fabulously forceful with his forehand, opening up the court with its sharp angles and calmly putting away winners much like the Big 3 do.
Tsitsipas’ crosscourt forehand was always his stronger shot off that wing, but now even his inside-out forehand has point-ending potency. He is taking the ball earlier and hitting it flatter, depriving his opponents of that precious thing called time. And so far, not one of his five opponents has had a good enough counter to it.
The evolution of his forehand has coincided with an overall increase in his aggression level on the court. Last year, as he was finding his feet on the professional tour, he seemed content to defend till either his own legs or his opponent’s legs buckled. He did a darned good job of it, deploying a variety of spins and touches to stay alive, but we wondered whether that kind of playing style had a ceiling.
The man himself seems to have wondered the same thing during the off-season, because he has been playing with a far greater sense of urgency this year. He is now proactive in the rallies and bold with his net approaches, which combined with his always-deft hands and always-sharp court sense have turned him into a nightmare of an opponent.
Tsitsipas’ second serve is another thing that has shown marked improvement. It used to be a bit of a softball, frequently landing in the middle of the box with a fair amount of spin, but he now aims for the lines and looks to set up his forehand with it. It is still not one of the most important weapons in his overflowing arsenal, but it is not a weakness either.
Against Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarter-final on Tuesday, Tsitsipas brought all of his newfound ammunition to the fore, moving the Spaniard around with his forehand and handcuffing him with his serve. But he also used his natural assets effectively, covering the court like a cheetah and imparting just enough variation into the rallies to keep his opponent off-balance.
When he was 3-4 down in the third set, Tsitsipas had a 15-30 chance on Bautista Agut’s serve to get back on level terms. The two then engaged in a long rally that didn’t look likely to end in the Greek’s favor, especially after Bautista Agut crunched a crosscourt backhand with a sharp angle that pulled Tsitsipas out of position. His reply? A nasty short slice that was straight out of the Federer handbook, and which left the Spaniard lunging forward in vain. He got the break back in that game, and eventually the match too.
Tsitsipas always had the touch, the variation, the net skills and the tactical mind; that short slice to befuddle Bautista Agut was just another example of his unique gifts. What we thought he didn’t have was a reliably powerful forehand and a solid second serve, and we questioned whether that was going to be too big of a stumbling block in his career growth.
Well, we don’t have to question that any more. Tsitsipas has made such dramatic strides in his skill development process that his weaknesses have already turned into strengths. If he can do that at the age of 20, should we even dare to imagine what kind of monster he will turn into by the age of 30?
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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 21:21:27 IST