Tuesday, September 29. Caught up in the freshness of an autumn evening on the Suzanne-Lenglen court, Stéfanos Tsitsipas is on the brink of the abyss. He has just lost the first two sets of his first round against the Spaniard Jaume Munar, 109th player in the world. The Greek has no choice, he must react, otherwise he will pack his bags prematurely, for the fifth time in a row before the second week in the Grand Slam. Yet another potential snub for the man who had trumpeted his new goal last November after winning the Masters: to win a Major, despite the omnipotence of the “Big 3”.
Sin of pride or a heightened awareness of one’s own worth? The debate is open but one observation takes shape: Tsitsipas begins to block the best of five sets, like Alexander Zverev before him. And yet… Ten days later, after winning 15 consecutive rounds – a record for him – here is the fiery Stefanos at the gates of the Roland-Garros final. So what happened on September 29? “I took the time to think: why was I rushing like this, and why I wasn’t taking my time in the exchange? It helped me calm the game down, and restart in a new way“, explained the person who came out of his torpor at the last minute on the evening of the 1st round.
From trauma to click: Tsitsipas has come full circle
Decidedly, the character denotes in modern tennis: he does not hesitate to speak out at a press conference, which is not to displease us, we must admit, in a time when the agreed speeches follow reductive analyzes . Fourteen months earlier, Tsitisipas, again, had shown an equally disarming sincerity after his cruel and epic defeat in five sets and more than five hours against Stanislas Wawrinka, still on Parisian clay.
“It’s been a long time since I cried after a tennis match and there it was. I was so close to winning, I had so, so many break points, I was so close … I hope that will help me in the future. But for now, I am unable to see how and when. My brain is empty, completely empty. To fight like this and lose in five sets is terrible “, he confided at the time, inconsolable. Five sets and the Suzanne-Lenglen short: these are the two points in common between this unforgettable round of 16 in 2019 and this 1st round 2020 which will not be remembered.
Except for Stéfanos Tsitsipas. Because despite the heavy balls, the wet earth, a mediocre level compared to his standards and an arm that sometimes trembled, this time, the Greek won. And in a way, he came full circle, settled his accounts with himself and overcome what had been, casually, a little trauma on his scale. “It’s all in the head. It’s all in the mind. You take the conditions, you try to do something with them. And I’m very happy to have won this match, to have found solutions. I fought, and I found small details that allowed me to play better“, he still observed.
Thiem, the example to follow
In a way, Tsitsipas found during this fortnight the beating that slumbered in him. The one who had brought down, to everyone’s surprise, his idol Roger Federer in another famous round of 16, this time in Melbourne almost two years ago. In Australia, his presence in the last four caused a sensation. This year is a confirmation after the slow but complete digestion of a failure that he had not seen coming. If his defeat against ‘Stanimal’ had hurt him so much, it is also because, galvanized by a meteoric progression, the young Hellene already saw himself subscribed to the summits. But all the talent in the world does not protect against certain reverses of fortune. .
A few weeks ago, Tsitsipas was still learning it the hard way during a 3rd round of the US Open where the fear of winning seized him despite 6 match points against Borna Coric. Convinced that only work would pull him out of this bad situation, he found inspiration in one of his colleagues: the one who put an end to the unchallenged reign of the “Big 3” in Grand Slam, the very recent winner in New York. “Dominic (Thiem) had fabulous results. He played two finals in a row here. He’s someone who helps me understand the game, who inspires me to go even further, and follow his example. He’s fun off the court, and he’s a workaholic on the court. He is an incredible and passionate player. He’s a good friend. I think I can learn a lot from him“, he estimated.
Put back on track for his ultimate ambition, does Tsitsipas see himself making it happen in Paris and therefore imitating Thiem? “Yes, it is a dream. I hope to triumph in these Grand Slams since I was very young. I am happy to be in the position where I am today. It is something very satisfying. I aim for spectacular results“, he reaffirmed. The Greek is not afraid to reveal his objectives, we had already understood after his triumph in the Masters tournament. But probably, if he wants to go for the Musketeers Cup, he will have to overthrow two monsters in the semi-finals and in the final: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – a performance that only Stan Wawrinka has achieved in the recent past during the same Major at the 2014 Australian Open.
The perfect opportunity to bring down a diminished “Djoker”?
Each day is enough its penalty and the gaze of the world number 6 will be entirely turned on Friday towards the invincible (on a regular basis: 36 victories and one defeat on disqualification) “Djoker”. The demonstration of the Greek in the quarterfinals against Andrey Rublev (7-5, 6-2, 6-2) in less than two hours impressed more than one. Enough to approach this capital challenge with a clear-cut confidence and a well-filled energy gauge. The Serb himself is aware of the danger.
“In the past 12 months he has won the World Tour Finals. It is very consistent in its results on all surfaces. His serve and forehand are weapons. He puts a lot of topspin on his backhand. He comes to the net. He can play aggressively and defend well because he moves so well. He’s really a very complete player. I think he’s one of the hardest working people. He has an excellent team with his father, Patrick Mouratoglou. He grew up in his academy, one of the best tennis academies in the world“, noted a more than glowing world number 1 after his laborious victory in the quarter-finals against Pablo Carreno Busta.
Djokovic has also let the mystery hang over his physical condition, admitting to suffering from the shoulder and neck without saying more. For our consultant Mats Wilander, the alert is real and there is cause for concern. “It’s surely an injury he’ll still feel, and if he doesn’t get off to a good start, that could be a problem. His body clearly took a long time to warm up on Wednesday and it will be the same on Friday and potentially Sunday in the final. Whoever is the player concerned, these next two matches are going to be brutal in terms of duration and on the physical level. It will be two marathons, it will take a lot of running“, considered the former Swedish champion.
I’m not a Next Gen player anymore, I’m an adult
If the Serbian is indeed reduced, the opportunity seems all the more beautiful to seize for Tsitsipas who has already beaten him twice in their 5 previous duels. But the person refuses to enter this potential game of dupes. “An adversary is an adversary, whether injured or not. I will play the game I have to play. And then, we will stop there on this question, because I approach this match with the same intensity and the same concentration as during my last matches.“, he asserted with firmness.
Tsitsipas knows it all too well, to dominate a member of the “Big 3” to the best of five sets is a whole different challenge than to do it on a shorter format in Masters 1000. It will be the first time that he will challenge Djokovic in Grand Slam. In Melbourne in 2019, he fell on a bone at the same stage in the person of Rafael Nadal, but he then came out of a feat against Federer from which he was not fully recovered. Water has flowed under the bridges. “I’m not a Next Gen player anymore. I am an adult“Said the 22-year-old. It’s up to him to show it on the Philippe-Chatrier court.