Stefanos Tsitsipas: Best of the NextGen?

by Charles Friesen (Contributor)

Stefanos Tsitsipas has been ripping it up this summer, rising into the ATP top 15 after making the final of the Canadian Open, aka Rogers Cup in Toronto, beating four top-ten players along the way.  But he started the year in mid-pack of the burgeoning crop of Next Gen players, with a ranking of 91.  So far Zverev has been the cream of this group, claiming three Masters 1000 titles and the world #3 ranking.

 

His year so far

In his first tournament of the year, Stefanos won four matches out of qualifying to make the quarter-finals in Qatar.  By March he’d made the quarters in Dubai.  That month he played his last Challenger for the foreseeable future.  In April he announced his name to the world by storming through Barcelona, knocking out four top-ten seeds, including then world #7, Dominic Thiem.  He arrived in the final and got thrashed by Nadal, 2 and 1, and called it a good learning experience.

 

He then made the semis in Estoril and won his first main-draw slam match, at Roland Garros.  He upped the ante at Wimbledon by making the fourth round on what he calls his favorite surface.  Next, he made the semis at the 500 in Washington, taking out Goffin.  But nothing prepared me for his run to the final of the 1000 in Canada.  He took out four top-ten players including Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev, and Anderson.

 

Again, he met Nadal in the final, but this time he put up much stiffer resistance and got to set-point in the second set.  But Nadal dug deep and ended it 6-2, 7-6.  Afterwards, Nadal called Tsitsipas’s game “complex,” which has be considered high praise.  The kid is only getting better and he just turned 20 the day of the final.

 

How he got here

Stefanos has an impressive game, with a powerful, point-ending forehand, a decent serve that will only improve as he fills into his (so far) 6’4” frame, and no real weaknesses elsewhere in his arsenal.  He’s rangy and quick.  But his greatest gift might be his mind.  He stays calm under pressure.  He’s already learning to control his errors unlike many of his young peers, and he knows how to mix it up.  He’s made insightful comments about how intelligently Federer mixes up shot selection.

 

Intelligent choice has been part of Stef’s upbringing.  Some of the media have attempted to nickname him Tennis’ Greek Freak (after basketball star, Antetokounmpo) or Tsitsi Fly, but he claims his nickname is simply ‘Stef.’  Stefanos’ father Apostolos is a tennis coach.  His mother was a top-ranked Soviet player, and her father was an Olympic gold medalist in soccer in 1956.  They met at a tennis tournament at which she was a player and he was a line judge.  Apostolos became a certified coach and taught his son the game.

 

In an interview with Ubitennis, his father repeatedly stressed that it was Stefanos making the choices about his career.  Apostolos sees his role as supplying his son with as many tools as possible so that when the point of decision comes, he can choose wisely.

 

Stefanos Has Always Wanted It

Said Apostolos:  “I am aware of how complicated it is to push someone from a psychological point of view.  We can inspire children, motivate them, let them see the possibilities.  But we cannot make the decisions for them.”  “Children have great ability to explore and understand, but if one destroys this plasticity it is the end.  Children need to be free to decide.”  “Now tennis is his life and it is right for him to make his decisions for his life. … He must be free to explore, even beyond tennis.”

 

So when he was 10 or 11, Stefanos woke his father in the middle of the night and announced, “I want to become a tennis player.  I like the competition.  I like the challenge.”  And it was Stefanos who chose his one-handed backhand.  He used to switch between one- and two-handed.

 

The mind is the greatest weapon

So Stefanos is used to making his own choices.  It shows in the creativity he displays on court.  And it also means he’s in tennis on his own terms.  I’ve been impressed with his collected and placid demeanor during interviews in his run to what has been the biggest tournament of his life, in Toronto.  He was not overly excited, awestruck, or condescending.  Rather he seemed focused.  He was present to the now and what needs to be done next.

 

I’ve seen this before, this collectedness, in players like Pete Sampras and Rafa Nadal.  It’s self-assurance without arrogance, determination without hubris, consciousness of the path forward to a goal not yet reached.  It is perhaps Tsitsipas’ most impressive quality, this focus and solidity of mind.  Alexander Zverev has so far put up more impressive wins and numbers than Tsitsipas can match.  Both have complete games with no holes.  I don’t know if Tsitsipas’ talent is as deep as Zverev’s, but I like Stefanos’ headspace.  And sometimes that can make all the difference.

 

  • Charles brings THE SLICE from Vancouver, Canada.

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