Stefanos Tsitsipas: Teen trailblazer a French Open force?

Published by Vivienne Christie

A year after qualifying to make his Grand Slam debut, Stefanos Tsitsipas enters the French Open at a career-high No.40; Getty Images
Still just 19 and already the best male player to emerge from Greece, Stefanos Tsitsipas is carrying career-best form into the French Open.

That Stefanos Tsitsipas lists his favourite tournament as Wimbledon and preferred surface as grass is among many fascinating facts about the fast-rising Greek.

For it is on clay that the 19-year-old has achieved stunning results to surge into the world’s top 40, making him an intriguing prospect at Roland Garros.

A breakthrough at the clay-court major would be fitting, given Tsitsipas’ rapid rise kicked off with qualifying to make his Grand Slam debut at the French Open in 2017.

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He lost first round to Ivo Karlovic but in qualifying for a tour-high eight ATP tournaments last year, Tsitsipas laid the foundations for further milestones – and there have been many of them in a headline-grabbing 2018.

It took Rafael Nadal to stop Tsitsipas as he charged into a first ATP final in Barcelona with upsets of four top-10 seeds – most notably, world No.7 and 2017 finalist Dominic Thiem – in Barcelona. And even in a 6-2 6-1 loss to 11-time champion Nadal, there was a win of sorts for the rising star.

“Playing Rafa on clay, it’s something really, really special,” Tsitsipas told ATPWorldTour.com.

“It was the best lesson that I can possibly ever get. He’s one of my idols growing up and it was the best moment of my career so far.”

Tsitsipas went on to upset Kevin Anderson, the 2017 US Open runner-up, in a semifinal run at Estoril to arrive at his current career-high world No.40 ranking.

It was another peak in the rapid development of Tsitsipas, who took up tennis as a three-year-old at the summer resort where parents Apostolos and Yulia worked as coaches.

Rising to world No.1 in the junior rankings in 2016 and becoming the first Greek player in history to hold an ATP top-100 ranking only last year, Tsitsipas is thrilled to inspire others with his rise.

He recently told SEN radio’s First Serve program that interest is steadily growing in his homeland. “I can see people now wanting to play tennis,” said the Athens-born Tsitsipas, explaining that a local tennis channel allows most of his matches to be viewed live.

“It’s getting better but there’s a lot more to create back home. That’s just the beginning. I’m very happy that I can be a part of the tennis in Greece.”

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The teenager – also quick to acknowledge the rise of world No.39 countrywoman Maria Sakkari on the WTA Tour – is proving a quality role model in many ways.

He names humility as one of the most important ingredients to ongoing progress, explaining to SEN’s First Serve that “it’s very important not to lose your focus and keep concentrating on your long-term goals.”

For Tsitsipas, the goal in 2018 was a top-30 breakthrough and, having more than halved his ranking from outside the top-90 in the first few months of the season, the teenager is on track to exceed that aim.

With a game built around a signature one-handed backhand, Tsitsipas spends time training at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Nice but works primarily with father Apostolos as his coach.

“It’s very important to have a family member with you when you’re travelling around the world and especially when it’s your dad,” said Tsitsipas.

“I feel very lucky to have him as a coach.  He understands me better, I understand him better and the connection is much better than any other coach.”

Equally important is the influence of mother Yulia Salnikova, who was a top player in the former USSR in the 1980s.

“I had two different cultures, Greek and Russian, involved in my life. It gave me a whole different perspective about things,” said the smiling Tsitsipas in Rome.

“My mum actually gave me a lot of discipline in my game. That’s what I believe helped me a lot. Discipline.”

Tennis is clearly a family game for the Tsitsipas clan, with sister Elisavet and brothers Petros (who at age 17 holds a world No.1847 ATP ranking) and Pavlov also competitive players.

For now, though, the focus is on Stefanos, as he approaches a potentially career-defining Grand Slam in personal-best form and with a refreshingly level head.

“I’m just trying to stay humble,” he insisted. “And do the same thing every week.”

Still, we can’t help but note that most weeks lately have marked an improvement for Tsitsipas.

And given his rise on clay but a preference for grass, the most exciting element is that we almost certainly haven’t even seen his best.

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