Between two matches played against Rafael Nadal at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, we saw Stefanos Tsitsipas grow up.
Two years ago, he had his big-ticket breakthrough moment as he stunned Roger Federer at the 2019 Australian Open, to reach his first ever Grand Slam quarter-final. But when the 20-year-old went up against the Spaniard in the semi-final that year, the then 14th seed emerged from that match looking shell-shocked after a straight sets defeat, complete with the bagel in the third set.
In 2021, they met again. This time, a quarter-final. Nadal was still the world No 2 but Tsitsipas was now the fifth seed and a player who has lived through the knife-edge that best-of-five tennis. And this time, the Greek maverick became just the third man in history to beat Nadal from two sets down.
Tsitsipas sensationally reached the semi-final again with an intensely-fought 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5 win.
It was a match to remember for all the classic reasons: the tennis and tenacity, the fight and the flair that both competitors showed. But the biggest takeaway from the four-hour-five-minute battle was how the 22-year-old won with his belief as much as his ball-striking, a balance that has not often been easy to achieve.
The last two Grand Slams that Tsitsipas has played have both ended with five-set epics but with him on the losing side.
At the 2020 US Open, he was knocked out by Borna Coric despite having six match points in the third round. It was, mildly put, a choke. At the 2020 French Open, he showed remarkable resilience to come back from two sets down against world No 1 Novak Djokovic. The fifth set in Paris ended with a breadstick, but that experience mattered.
When the youngster found himself two sets down in his quarter-final against Nadal, he knew he had it in him to push the big names and go the distance. He did the basics right: stayed in the points, served clean and then built up to unleash his shots, shots so capable of getting past even the Spaniard’s storied defence when on fire.
Fighting back from the brink
The quarter-final began on a different note, though. Physically, it was always going to be the 22-year-old who had the edge so Nadal had to be a tactical and mental giant. The 34-year-old came into the Australian Open under an injury cloud after missing the ATP Cup due to back injury but was yet to drop a set. (He fell just one short of Federer’s record of 36 straight sets won at Majors.)
The Spaniard started cautiously but defended at his best and pounced on the only break point he got, securing a ‘pistol’ break in the eighth game and serving out the first set. The world No 2 then hit his stride, broke in the first game of the second set and sealed with another at 4-1, all the while giving away no break point at all.
Before the third set began, it was clear that Tsitsipas was on the brink and either had to do something extraordinarily special or suffer what would be a morale-crushing loss. And the 22-year-old is very much a morale player, his fluctuating feelings apparent in his body language.
Nadal had won six out of the seven matches they had played and Tsitsipas has never shied away from the fact that he thinks beating the Spaniard is a benchmark he holds himself too. At this point, either the legend could live in his head rent-free or he could fill his head with the motivational one-liners he is so fond of on social media.
That’s exactly when the 2018 Next Gen winner turned 2019 ATP Finals champion found something supremely rare in men’s tennis today – a level higher than a Big Three member.
In the third set, he didn’t give up a break point either and pushed for a tiebreaker with clutch tennis. And that tiebreak became a massive turning point… specifically the second point played when Nadal strangely fluffed an overheard shot. That seemed to unsettle the Spaniard quite a bit as he made a string of errors to drop his first set at the event. He then gave up his first break point to start the fourth and was broken for the first time in the ninth game.
The tiebreak was one of two instances where Nadal was let down by his own inexplicable unforced errors – the second being the decisive break in the fifth set where he was broken to love with four straight errors – and it made all the difference.
Forcing Nadal into errors across sets and then being able to capitalise on them is one of the tougher things in tennis, even on the faster courts of Melbourne. Tsitsipas was able to do dig in and do that while keeping his own games rock solid. In the final three sets where he faced just one break point (in the last game of the match) while hitting 36 winners and only 18 unforced errors: an excellent ratio.
Cliched as it may be, champion players find a way to win from the toughest of situations and Tsitsipas displayed this vital quality at one of the biggest stages against one of the best players in the world.
Take a look at how Djokovic worked his way against a similarly promising young gun Alexander Zverev in the other quarter-final even with an injury and plenty of setbacks. The 22-year-old from Greece has been in that position many times in his short career; from the French Open 2019 epic against Stan Wawrinka to the 2020 battle against Djokovic. But this time, he crossed the fifth-set barrier with a composure that augurs well for his future.
When Tsitsipas beat Federer in the first week of Australian Open 2019, it came as a shock upset. When he beat Nadal in the final eight at Australian Open 2021, it is an epic win, it is still an upset but it is also a sign of how far Tsitsipas has come and it should not come as a shock.