From Challengers To The World Tour, Tsitsipas Is A #NextGenATP Rising Star

WASHINGTON, August 10, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Stefanos Tsitsipas has been setting new milestones for himself and for his native Greece in what has been a breakout year for the rising #NextGenATP star. The likable 19-year-old from Athens (who turns 20 on Sunday) became the first Greek player to reach the Top 100 in the history of the ATP rankings, and the first Greek to reach the round of 16 at a Grand Slam in the Open Era, which he accomplished last month at Wimbledon, his favorite tournament.

Currently ranked at a career-high No. 27, the up-and-coming Tsitsipas has gone from playing Challengers a year ago, where he won one title in Genoa, to breaking into the ATP Top 50 in his first full season on the World Tour. He’s enjoying a stellar 2018 campaign – 28 of his 32 career tour-level wins have come this year – and he’s candid and refreshing with his thoughts, too.

“I feel like I belong,” said Tsitsipas during a recent interview while competing at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. “I realized this after qualifiying for the main draw at the French Open last year and, then, three weeks later I qualified for the Wimbledon main draw. That was kind of the moment I realized ‘I’m in there.’ I can play and have good wins.

“The difference between playing Challengers and the World Tour is the players’ games are more mature. You are playing against better and more skillful players.”

Last year, Tsitsipas was one of three teens, along with Denis Shapovalov of Canada and Frances Tiafoe of the United States, to reach the Top 100. In each of the past four seasons, he’s shown steady improvement in his game by raising his year-end ranking by at least 100 spots in four straight seasons. Before that, he was a talented junior player, who rose to No. 1 in the world in May 2016. Tsitsipas is coached by his father, Apostolos, and his mother, Julia, is a former top Soviet player. His sister and two brothers also play tennis.

At the Citi Open last week, his first hard-court tournament since Indian Wells in March, Tsitsipas reached the semifinals, earning wins over Jared Donaldson, James Duckworth and David Goffin, before he lost 6-2, 6-4 to defending champion Alexander Zverev, ranked No. 3 in the world, in the semifinals.

At the Masters 1000 Rogers Cup in Toronto this week, Tsitsipas picked up where he left off in Washington. He began the week with a quality win over 24th-ranked Damir Dzumhur in straight sets. Then, against 8th-ranked Dominic Thiem, Tsitsipas won 30 of 32 points on his serve in the second set en route to another straight-set win. It set up a third-round match against 10th-ranked Novak Djokovic, the first time Tsitsipas had reached the third round of a Masters 1000 tournament.

Milestone win in Toronto

On Thursday afternoon, Tsitsipas scored a massive win over Djokovic, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, to reach his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal – and seventh ATP World Tour quarterfinal of the season. It earned him a rematch with Zverev, whom he trails 0-1 in career head-to-head, less than a week after they met in Washington, D.C.

“That was phenomenal composure from the young fellow today stepping up huge,” said ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert in assessing Tsitsipas’ win over the 13-time Grand Slam champion. “It was a very mature match from Tsitsipas. I really liked his attitude.”

Against the former World No. 1 and recent Wimbledon champion Djokovic, he played with much confidence in gaining his fourth win against at Top 10 opponent this season and his first against a major champion. His serve was never broken, he never looked stressed during his two-hour and 18 minute match against the best returner in tennis, and he never played reckless – just better. He compiled 42 winners and caused Djokovic to hit 37 unforced errors.

“In its calmness, intelligence, aggression and seeming nervelessness, it was also one of the most impressive performances we’ve seen from a Next Gen player yet,” wrote Steve Tignor for Tennis.com, after Tsitsipas’ victory over Djokovic.

As they met at the net, Djokovic gave Tsitsipas, his oft-times practice partner, a warm hug and patted him on the back of the head as they walked off the court together. Tsitsipas was moved by the crowd’s applause for him. He sat for a moment with his head buried in his towel soaking in the adulation from the appreciative crowd. Shortly afterward, as is customary for the winners of big matches, Tsitsipas autographed the court side camera lens. He signed “#Pray for Greece” along with a heart sign and his autographed signature. It was a very nice and kind gesture toward his home country, which has been ravaged by summer fires.

“I feel very proud for me, myself, and my country,” said Tsitsipas during his post-match press conference, as quoted by ATPWorldTour.com. “I’m putting Greece more deep into the map of tennis. So I’m pretty sure I’m making my family proud, all of those people that are watching, my coach, my father. It was a very emotional win. I’ve never felt so many emotions after a victory.”

One year ago, Tsitsipas was ranked No. 168 and without a tour-level win. He lost in the semifinals of an ATP Challenger Tour event in Portoroz, Slovenia. Now, with one more win, he’ll crack the Top 20.

Tsitsipas has been on a roll since Wimbledon – a tournament he’s always wanted to do well in  – but his season has been marked by many ups and downs, like riding on a roller-coaster. “I had a decent start of the year, reaching the quarterfinals in Doha, but I also lost in the first round of the Australian Open,” he recalled during a recent “Beyond the Baseline” podcast interview with Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim. “I didn’t know what the year would be like. I kept working hard with my team. I kept believing in myself. Monte Carlo was a good week, then, I reached the finals in Barcelona. I was concentrating more on my game than on my results. It helped me raise my confidence and I started believing in myself.”

Through it all, Tsitsipas said, “I’ve managed to deal with frustrations and stay calm.” He always arrives on court looking both physically fit and, more often than not, keeps control of his emotions.

Relaxing holidays

While Tsitsipas has worked hard on his fitness and stamina off court, he’s also listened to his body and taken time off the tour to go on vacation. This has allowed his body ample time to rest and relax and for him to clear his head, too. Twice this year, he’s been to the British Virgin Islands, once prior to the clay season and, again, following Wimbledon.

“I like to visit and discover cities,” said Tsitsipas. Going to the British Virgin Islands represented a chance for him to go on an emotional discovery, swimming the whole day on the beach alone. He told Wertheim it was a chance to balance himself, understand his feelings, and to get to know himself better. He left his parents and team behind.

“It was the best one week of my life,” said Tsitsipas. “As weird as it may sound, being alone was the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. I felt like I didn’t belong to society anymore. I was on my own and did what I wanted.” Among his favorite off-the-court activities are playing table tennis, video games, swimming and watching movies.

Refreshed after his holiday, Tsitsipas has been enjoying a new beginning, reaching the semifinals at Washington and the quarterfinals at Toronto, where his confidence has never looked better – and his body’s battery is back operating at 100 percent. He knows he will have a lot of tough matches during the summer hard-court season and he’s prepared for it.

“He’s definitely one of the leaders of Next Gen without a doubt especially this season,” Djokovic was quoted by the ATP World Tour website as saying of Tsitsipas. “He’s had some terrific results and terrific wins. He’s showing a lot of commitment, a lot of discipline. You know, he’s putting in the hours in the gym, on the tennis court, and it’s paying off. I mean, he’s very talented. He was the best junior in the world. If he keeps on going this way, he’s got a good future.”

Highlight “Big Apple”

With an eye toward the U.S. Open later this month, Tsitsipas told Wertheim that his goals include: “Get as many points, play my tennis, play my game, come to the net, serve well, play aggressive tennis, and stay focused. I’m working on my game for the most important event, the last Grand Slam of the year at the U.S. Open. It’s the most important tournament for me.”

Watching Tsitsipas compete over the course of a week or more, it doesn’t take long to realize he plays a beautiful game of tennis. His style is old school, which includes hitting a solid, one-fisted backhand right-handed, just like Roger Federer, whom he idolizes.

During a recent interview with Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob at the Citi Open, Tsitsipas said, “It’s important that I’m making it at the next level. I’m one of the top players in the Next Gen Race to Milan. I’m playing well, I’m having a good year.”

Playing well against the other Next Gen players motivates Tsitsipas, who is currently second in the ATP Race to Milan standings. “It motivates me to face them, to do better than them. This race to Milan simply makes me a better player,” he said. Coupled with his victory over Djokovic, he’s proven he can hold his own against the Big Four, too. He played a mature match, fought from start to end, and outpointed Djokovic 102-87.

Tsitsipas has come a long way in a short time after he looked shell-shocked against Zverev in the Citi Open semifinals last weekend. Looking back, it was a match that started terribly for the Greek, in which he experienced trouble with his footwork and in placing his shots. It prompted him during a changeover to repeatedly hit himself hard in the head using the heel of the palm of his hand.

“I got very pissed with myself because it seemed like I couldn’t control the match. He had full control. … All the heat inside of me and all this pressure just came out, and it shouldn’t happen,” said Tsispitas following the match. “That’s not the behavior of a top professional tennis player. I regret I did this on the court. I feel bad about myself. Next time, I should be more mature. I overdid things.”

What a difference a week makes. Now, Tsitispas is playing with more maturity and a clear confidence, and after the best win of his career, who knows? With Tsitsipas, anything’s possible.