With his defeat of Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Masters on Saturday, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas put paid to his rival’s hopes of a home title ahead of the French Open, handing him his third straight semi-final loss on Tour. It was not that Tsitsipas’ victory has been a big surprise, nor that this is his biggest announcement yet. But for the 23-year-old, his 2019 season has already been a vindication of his work in 2018.
Having made Sunday’s final in Madrid, Tsitsipas has truly made his mark in overcoming the hot favourite for the title — not just the final. Tsitsipas’ last meeting against Nadal was fairly recently, at the Australian Open this year. To say that match was lopsided would be a massive understatement, with the Greek youngster winning only six games in the entire match as Nadal stormed to the final.
Tsitsipas had looked dazed, dejected and downright morose in the aftermath of that match, but only months later, up against that same opponent — and this time at home — the 20-year-old looked in consummate form.
Taking three breaks of serve in the first set, Tsitsipas managed to hold on even as the 11-time Roland Garros winner battled back for the second set. Make no mistake, Tsitsipas’ semi-final against Nadal was dramatic. It saw the pendulum swing, it was tense, and even Tsitsipas’ first match point went awry. But this match showed a new Tsitsipas, one who has, since January, been reinventing himself quick and fast.
Last year, Tsitsipas won the NextGen ATP Finals, beating out several other contenders for the title of the ATP’s “Next Big Thing” — a title that Alexander Zverev had staked claim to, not too long ago. Indeed, a number of Tsitsipas’ rivals — also at that tournament — are making their mark, in particular the young American Frances Tiafoe.
But for Tsitsipas, his tennis has been on another level to his peers, and it has shown in his results. Last year, he made perhaps the biggest announcement of his arrival with a debut ATP final at the Barcelona Open — where, although he eventually lost the final, he reached there without having dropped a set.
It isn’t every day you get to see a player who has beaten the top 10 with repeated success — and not just in one-off fashion. Tsitsipas, in the Rogers Cup last year, defeated Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Zverev and Kevin Anderson in the same tournament — incidentally, losing the title to Nadal.
This year, at the Australian Open, he took perhaps his biggest victory yet; not just in terms of the rival he faced on the other side of the net — Roger Federer — but in the magnitude of the victory. Tsitsipas faced a staggering 12 break points against the 20-time Grand Slam winner and reigning Australian Open champion — and saved each one — despite having lost roundly to Federer only weeks before.
Interestingly, Tsitsipas is quite similar, tactically, to Federer, even if their games are not particularly identical. Both are known for their single-handed backhand, both play aggressive tennis — but for the 20-year-old, the similarities are not entirely in the physical aspect of the serve, but more in just how both build their shots. Tsitsipas may have age on his side — but just like Federer, he drives opponents all over the court, forcing them to move around, varies the pace and plays tactical tennis to outwit his opponents — not just tire them.
None of these changes, of course, have been sudden. The young player has obviously been working on these skills a while: His results in the latter half of 2018 should be proof enough of that. But 2019 has been more than a bumper year for him — after his Australian Open semi-final, Tsitsipas won the title at the Open 13 in Marseille, and quickly followed it up with a finals finish at the Dubai Duty Free Championships, where he tumbled to Federer. He may not have made quite the mark at Indian Wells or Miami in the singles, but Tsitsipas would eventually finish a finalist at the doubles in Miami with Wesley Koolhof.
Now, with Tsitsipas going into the business end of the clay season — with Rome and the big guns, Roland Garros, up ahead, he is a different beast. He goes into today’s final, and the Rome Masters, with a title at the Estoril Open and a top 10 ranking under his belt. Most of all, he goes into today’s final with one of the biggest achievements a relative tyro such as himself could receive, having defeated Nadal on clay.
Whether or not Tsitsipas does manage to oust the in-form Djokovic remains to be seen, but there are several points in his favour. First, Djokovic’s win against Thiem was a hard-fought one, and tightly wound till the very end. Second, the last time the pair played each other — also the only time they have ever faced off, it was Tsitsipas who won, and on Djokovic’s most successful surface ever — hard courts.
At only 20 years of age, Tsitsipas is already learning lessons many before him have tried — and failed — to learn. For a player who started 2018 playing tournaments as a qualifier, world No 9 this year isn’t half as bad. In an era of tennis where the newest generation are making their presence felt among the old guard, Tsitsipas brings calmness, youth and maturity to the court — and this is only just the beginning of what is to come.
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Updated Date: May 12, 2019 21:20:11 IST