Roger Federer against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the round of 16 at the Australian Open was always going to be a cracker of a contest. Anyone who has seen the 20-year-old Greek play will affirm that he has that unique, all-court game that is very similar to a young Federer himself.
There are a lot of things that sets the Greek apart from his contemporaries: He is the world No 15, having climbed over a 100 spots in a year, he writes his own motivational quotes, he is the first Greek to win an ATP title, he has his own YouTube channel, a podcast and an Instagram page for still photography.
It’s not just his tennis, as he showed in a stunning lights-out display against Federer, but Tsitsipas is a give-it-his-all kind of person in most things he does.
And on Sunday at the Rod Laver Arena, the 2018 NextGen champion showed a trait that could set him apart: the ability to hold his nerve – and serve – when confronted by the occasion and one of the best players the game has seen.
The entirely of his stunning 6-7 (11/13), 7-6 (7/3), 7-5, 7-6 (7/5) win over Federer can be encapsulated in the first game of the match.
The Tsitsipas service game lasted eight minutes and, in no particular order, included: two saved break points, two time violations and a docked first serve, a replayed point that made Federer argue with the chair umpire, a murderous look by both competitors and superb volleying.
But it was also a sign of how the match would unfold – the youngster didn’t get overawed, kept his cool, stuck to his admittedly clever plan of attacking the Federer forehand and stayed ahead of the defending champion.
In the last match, he had got a code violation for an audible obscenity after being docked a serve and too often in the past his rage has got the better of him on court. But this time he maintained admirable serenity – staying true to the pearls of wisdom he bestows on his social media.
It was a brave charge, attacking Federer, parrying with him at the net, lobbing him. Not many young players would have the courage or court overage to go toe-to-toe with one of the tactically smartest players.
The duo had met only once before, at the Hopman Cup earlier this year where the Swiss won in two tiebreaks and joked that it was like “beating my son.”
The joke did have some truth in it though, as Stefanos plays a game similar to a young Federer – the propensity to volley, the one-handed backhand, finding the angles on groundstrokes, and seizing the initiative in point construction. In fact, the youngster began with a two-handed backhand but switched because he wanted to be like his idol.
And the youngest player left in the men’s draw used all these weapons to down the oldest player.
What Tsitsipas did right
While the upset has given rise to a debatable “passing of a torch” narrative – the 37-year-old is the third seed after all – it did have some shades of the veteran’s first big win – over Pete Sampras in 2001 at Wimbledon.
To save 12 break points against Federer is no mean feat, no matter the amount of jokes on him being averse to break point conversion. To face that barrage and not surrender his serve even once took a lot more than just gritty tennis, it took control of body and mind.
The two were almost neck-to-neck in net points won as well and Federer hit 61 winners to Tsitsipas’s 62, but committed 55 unforced errors with 33 on his misfiring forehand, which was constantly attacked by his opponent. Targeting Federer’s forehand can be a huge gamble, but the youngster –who had Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach, in his box – executed his game-plan to perfection.
This was not a struggling Federer, as he was during his fourth-round loss to John Millman at the US Open last year. The Swiss was playing high-quality tennis, which is often enough in the first week of a Major.
And it was the tennis pundit in Federer who summed up what the 20-year-old did right.
“I lost to a better player who was playing very well tonight. Hung in there, gave himself chances at some point, stayed calm. It’s not always easy, especially for younger guys. Credit to him for taking care of that. But he did a nice job of taking care of his half volleys. That’s maybe what won him the match tonight,” Federer said after the match.
Fearlessness from life experiences
As the veteran said, it is not easy for the young guys in best-of-five matches to 1) get top billing and 2) back it with performances. But young Tsitsipas is a more fearless player, due to a combination of off-court factors.
He comes from a family heavily influenced by sport: his mother Julia Apostoli-Salnikova was a WTA professional in erstwhile Soviet Union, while his maternal grandfather is an Olympic men’s football gold medallist and his father, Apostolos is a tennis coach, who trains all four of his children.
A few years ago Tsitsipas almost drowned which he says gave him new perspective and helped him have no fear on court.
Last year, he was overwhelmed and took a break to the British Virgin Islands staying by himself for a week.
He maintains his various social media accounts to maintain a semblance of balance and his travel vlogs and podcasts show the mature personality he is.
He was still a teen when he showed his chops as a future top 10 player – reaching the final at Barcelona Open beating Dominic Thiem, often considered the best player on clay after Nadal.
But the tournament that really showed his full potential and range is the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2018 where he became the youngest player to beat four top 10 players, beating Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev Kevin Anderson and Thiem in succession, before losing to Rafael Nadal in the final on his 20th birthday. And a few months later, he truly has arrived at the big stage.
The words that really signify his stunning win in Melbourne are not Federer’s or his own inspirational captions, but his almost-speechless reaction on court: when John McEnroe asked him if believed this result was possible, when he walked out on the court, he took his time and said yes. It is very important to keep that mindset when you go on court against the best of the best... to believe in yourself, in your capability, in what you have.
Tsitsipas believed and the made his dream come true.