Australian Open 2022: Magnet for controversies — Can Stefanos Tsitsipas rise above the disputes?

Stefanos Tsitsipas is making news as much for his game as for his gamesmanship.

Deepti Patwardhan January 29, 2022 13:44:33 IST
Australian Open 2022: Magnet for controversies — Can Stefanos Tsitsipas rise above the disputes?

Stefanos Tsitsipas has constantly created controversies by trying to bend the rules. AP

Stefanos Tsitsipas is making news as much for his game as for his gamesmanship.

Ever since he defeated Roger Federer at the Australian Open three years ago, he has been anointed as the stylistic heir to the Swiss. And the Greek brought a lot of creativity and flair during his semi-final clash against Daniil Medvedev at the Melbourne major.

But the Greek player is not very subtle when it comes to bending the rules.

During his 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 loss to World No 2 Medvedev on Friday, Tsitsipas once again copped a code violation for illegal coaching by his father, Apostolos. His third in six matches at this year’s Australian Open.

With the Australian crowd roaring on, the chair umpire Jaume Campistol was not quite able to listen in if Apostolos Tsitsipas was passing on any tips to his son. Medvedev had a full-blown argument with the umpire for giving him a violation for an audible obscenity.

“His father can talk every point! His father can talk every point!” the Russian raged. “Will you answer my question? Can you answer my question? Can you answer my question, please? Can his father talk every point? Oh my God, you are so bad, man. How can you be so bad in a semi-final of a Grand Slam? Look at me! I’m talking to you!”

After Medvedev had aired his grievance, quite vehemently, the Australian Open tournament referee actually launched a sting operation against the Tsitsipases. Greek umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore snuck into position right below Stefanos Tsitsipas’ player box and signalled to the umpire when she heard Apostolos passing on instructions. The coaching violation came when Tsitsipas was getting ready to receive a Medvedev serve right after he had won the first game of the fourth set at love. Tsitsipas laughed off the incident while on the court, but did not win a single game after that.

When questioned after the match, he shifted the onus on the referees, saying they have been targeting him for a long time. He even thought he was the ‘victim’ in this situation.

“The referees, I don’t think they will ever understand that I cannot hear anything when I’m playing because I’m trying to find solutions and try and read the game and recreate the game in my mind before the point starts,” Tsitsipas argued.

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep receiving coaching violations, even though I will never listen to any single thing he (Apostolos) says. But it’s fine, they can do that if they want, if they believe it’s right.”

It was a winding way to say, ‘whatever’. Tsitsipas has been blasé about what has been a serious accusation thrown at him all his career. Last year, at the Cincinnati Open, Alexander Zverev flew into a rage because Tsitsipas took his kit bag with him for a bathroom break, which included his mobile phone. The cameras caught his father texting on the phone during the break.

Tsitsipas’ argument that his father is a harmless, and seemingly hopeless, motor-mouth doesn’t stick. On Friday, he said he had spent ‘countless hours’ asking his father not to talk during the match. And yet his father is present in the player box, every single match.

The Greek player’s other coach is Patrick Mouratoglou, who was one signaling to Serena Williams during the infamous episode at the 2018 US Open final. While Williams denied she had received coaching, Mouratoglou admitted that he had been trying to send the American legend signals from the stands. His defence was that everyone did it, only some got caught.

It is the same line of thought Tsitsipas has tried to take.

Last July, he tweeted: “Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis. The sport needs to embrace it. We’re probably one of the only global sports that doesn’t use coaching during the play. Make it legal. It’s about time the sport takes a big step forward.” Neither Grand Slams nor the ATP allows coaching during the match.

But it is not just coaching violations that have stained Tsitsipas’ reputation. He has got into constant tussles with umpires. At the 2019 US Open, when chair umpire Damien Dumusois handed him a time violation for taking too long during the changeover, he said, "You have something against me, I don't know what — because you're French, probably. And you're all weirdos."

He has been a repeat offender when it comes to time violations too. In the fourth round of the 2022 Australian Open, against Taylor Fritz, Tsitsipas got two time violations in a single game, before receiving a code violation for coaching.

The precipitating event, however, came at last year’s US Open. He invited three-time major champion Andy Murray’s fury over his time-wasting tactics during their epic five-set battle in New York. Tsitsipas took a medical timeout at the end of the third set and then went for a bathroom break, which lasted for more than 10 minutes, after the fourth set. Murray, who lost the match, 6-2, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, said he had ‘lost respect’ for Tsitsipas after the incident.

At the time, the Greek of course didn’t break any rules but many believed he was abusing the spirit of the law. The bathroom break was loosely defined, in that there was no time limit specified for it.

The tennis authorities quickly stepped in to fix the loophole. In November, men’s tennis governing body ATP ruled that only one bathroom break would be allowed per match and the player cannot take more than three minutes after entering the bathroom facility. Since men’s matches are best-of-five affairs at Grand Slams, they allow players to take an additional bathroom break for the last two sets.

When the new rules were spelled out for the players, Aleksandar Vukic and Alexander Bublik, before their match at Adelaide International, Bublik quipped, ‘Thanks to Tsitsipas, huh?’

At only 23, Tsitsipas is gaining that kind of reputation. Though he is not a full-blown bad boy yet, a la Nick Kyrgios, he has become a magnet for controversies.

It is baffling considering he is one of the brightest talents on the ATP tour and is the kind of articulate voice the men’s game could do with. He is ranked No 4 in the world and has become a regular feature at the business end of Grand Slams despite the gamesmanship, not because of it. He has the game to rise above it, but does he have the intent?

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in Mumbai.

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