There was a definite sense of excitement when Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Roger Federer at the Australian Open: that of seeing a consummate young artist and his fearless expression. But while 20-time Grand Slam champion Federer continues to add masterpieces to his body of work, Tsitsipas seems to be struggling with inspiration.
The 21-year-old, deemed a stylistic successor to Federer, went down cramping to a resurgent Andrey Rublev 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (7-9) 5-7 in three hours and 54 minutes of intense tennis and high drama. This was his second straight first-round defeat in the Grand Slams — Tsitsipas had gone down in five sets to Italian journeyman Thomas Fabbiano at Wimbledon this summer.
“I feel like I'm doing the same thing over and over again, and my brain can't really take it anymore,” the Greek said after the match. “I feel like I'm doing the same routines on the court, the same execution, the same — I mean, same strategies and everything. I don't feel inspired. I play out on the court, and I don't feel like I'm chasing something.”
Since his breakthrough in Melbourne against Federer, Tsitsipas has had to do a lot of growing up in a very short time, and under intense spotlight. He was a fresh-faced, newly minted Next Gen champ in January with a social media account that gave ample measure of his Greek philosophising. Even as the tennis world revels in the prospect of a young talent, stories like Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev remind us that pro tennis is more than breakthrough wins and Tour titles. It’s a daily grind, a continuous, seemingly never-ending, process of getting better.
The Big 3 — Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — hve not stopped evolving, and thus not stopped winning. On the flip side, four of the ATP’s top-10, including Tsitsipas, were ousted in the first round at the US Open. Tsitsipas’ fellow Next Genner Karen Khachanov, French Open finalist Dominic Thiem and Wimbledon semi-inalist Roberto Bautista Agut joined the scrapheap on Tuesday.
Fortune didn’t seem to favour Tsitsipas at the US Open either, as he drew Rublev in the opening round.
The wiry Russian had his own Grand Slam breakthrough in New York two years ago, when he punched his way to the quarter-finals. A hard-hitting, hard-working player, the 21-year-old Rublev was part of the first wave of ATP’s Next Gen campaign. But a lower back stress fracture last year and a wrist injury earlier this year had stalled his progress. Having slipped to 115 in the rankings in February, Rublev has mounted an impressive comeback during the US hard-court season. Coming through the qualifiers, Rublev handed Federer his quickest defeat in 16 years at the Cincinnati Open. He followed it up with a quarter-final finish at the Winston-Salem Open.
Rublev was in the mood on Tuesday, firing from the baseline at Tsitsipas. In the high-octane encounter littered with some long, tough rallies, the Russian held his end up. He cracked 51 winners and had 45 unforced errors to his name. Tsitsipas was more nuanced, finding angles, moving to the forecourt, changing pace and direction, but he just wasn’t consistent enough. While the Greek had 14 more winners than Rublev, he also stacked up 81 unforced errors.
Tsitsipas may have lacked the inspiration, but he didn’t lack fight. He fought back from a break down in the second set, sealing it in the tie-break with a rollicking forehand winner that had his noisy players’ box roaring. He battled cramps in the fourth set in humid New York, gamely holding on to his serve for 2-2 while literally playing on one leg. In the next game, he pushed Rublev, was able to create seven break point chances, only to fritter away all of them.
The match reached its dramatic peak in the middle of the third set when Tsitsipas, who had already had a run-in with the umpire for on-court coaching, received a code violation for taking too much time between points. Serving at 3-3, 30-40, he was docked a first serve. Though the Greek managed to win that point he couldn’t save his service game. During the changeover at 4-3, Tsitsipas was pulled up by the umpire for changing headband after he had called time. The argument with the umpire concluded with the player saying, “You have something against me, I don't know what — because you're French, probably. And you're all weirdos.”
Even though Rublev failed to close out the match on his first attempt at 5-4, serving two double faults and conceding the game with a hesitant forehand down the line error, the Russian served it out at 7-5.
It was a dramatic and agonizing end to Tsitsipas’ rollercoaster Grand Slam season. The seven months were revealing, of the promise and its pitfalls. In 2019, so far, the Greek has won two titles, secured a win-loss record of 37-19, suffered two heart-breaking five-set defeats at Grand Slams (including one at the French Open against Stan Wawrinka) and achieved a career high of No 5 in the rankings.
“I remember achieving my career high of 5 in the world,” the 21-year-old said. “I was really excited when I saw that No. 5 and my name next to it. Then I realized that in order to stay up there, I have to be very, very consistent during semifinals, finals, winning titles, and I don't know why that got in my brain a little bit.”
Tsitsipas still has those big, bold strokes that saw him topple Federer and surge to the semi-final of the Australian Open. He needs an unbending mind to piece them altogether.
Updated Date: Aug 28, 2019 12:18:22 IST