Several things strike you on meeting Stefanos Tsitsipas for the first time.
There’s his physicality, the Greek’s lanky 193cm frame – topped by his trademark flowing hair – in itself commanding attention. There’s also an intriguing depth of character as Tsitsipas engages in conversation with an unfiltered ease that quickly takes him from playful to pensive. But mostly, there’s an energy that doesn’t merely seem to buzz beneath the surface, but also drive him into constant motion. Tsitsipas simply can’t seem to keep still.
It’s fitting for a player, still just 20 years old, who has made such dynamic professional inroads in such a short space of time.
The first man from his nation ever to break into the world’s top 100 little more than a year earlier, Tsitsipas started his 2019 season in Australia with a string of heartening firsts for Greek tennis already achieved: the first player to contest an ATP final at Barcelona in April 2018, and win an ATP trophy (in Stockholm). In between, he beat four top-10 players to reach the Toronto Masters final.
But it was Australian Open 2019 that made the entire world sit up and take note. Making history by virtue of his first-round win over Matteo Berrettini – no Greek man had won a main draw match at the Australian Open in the tournament’s 107-year history until then – Tsitsipas soon progressed to become the first Greek man to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal and immediately trumped his own record by becoming the first to reach a Grand Slam semifinal.
Most headline-grabbing was the fourth-round win over Roger Federer, en route to becoming the youngest Grand Slam semifinalist since a 20-year-old Novak Djokovic at the 2007 US Open and the youngest at the Australian Open since Andy Roddick, also 20, in 2003.
“It was a very emotional moment … a beginning of something really big. I felt joy. I felt happiness. I felt a huge relief going out of my shoulders,” said Tsitsipas. “That moment is definitely something that I will never, ever, ever forget. This match point is going to stay (with me) I’m pretty much sure, forever, for the rest of my life.”
Far from overawed by a first tour-level meeting against his childhood idol – their only other match having occurred at the Hopman Cup weeks earlier – Tsitsipas’ remarkable composure was instead a consequence of having watched and learned from the Swiss maestro, among others, since he was young.
Yet there was a very deliberate effort for Tsitsipas to keep the milestone victory in check. “We all know who Roger Federer is, what he has done in tennis. But I still have to keep my focus, keep my concentration on further goals that I want to achieve. That’s a very good beginning. I need to stay humble,” he insisted.
“This win is a good milestone, let’s say good first step, as I said, to something bigger.”
If such drive and maturity seem surprising in someone so young, Tsitsipas can pinpoint how those qualities were instilled. Several years ago, he was competing at a Futures event in Greece when an ocean swim almost went tragically wrong. Caught in some waves, Stefanos came close to drowning and was saved by his father, Apostolos – and instantly, he later related, his view on life and his tennis future altered.
“My perspective of everything changed. My brain changed,” he said. “I saw all the things different on the court. I felt absolutely zero fear on the court. It kind of changed my mind that day.”
Other elements were also at play for Tsitsipas, whose sporting genes are rich. His maternal grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was a 1956 Melbourne Olympics gold medalist in football but his mother, Julia, was a top Soviet tennis player in the 1980s and like her tennis-playing husband – who was once a linesman at a WTA event in Athens – she later became a tennis coach. Tsitsipas believes his mother’s Russian heritage contributed to the work ethic that helped him build the foundations for his breakthrough 2018 season.
The strong sense of professionalism meant Tsitsipas was straight back to work after a lopsided Australian Open semifinal loss to Nadal, in which the Greek’s genuine dismay at having failed to challenge the 17-time major star demonstrated his clear sense of belonging among the game’s elite.
“I’m really disappointed today because, again, I feel like I could get closure and prove myself a little bit more, not let him dominate the entire match,” Tsitsipas said. “Just felt wrong.”
Still, at age 20, there’s an abundance of time and opportunities to right any wrongs – and Tsitsipas quickly built on his strong season start, defeating Goffin and Mikhail Kukushkin to claim a second career title in Marseille and finishing runner-up to Federer in Dubai.
Ranked outside the top 70 at the same time last year, Tstisipas is now inside the world’s top 10.
— Stefanos Tsitsipas (@StefTsitsipas) March 4, 2019
Amid his meteoric rise, Tsitsipas has found the necessary time to focus on other pursuits besides tennis, such as through his “A Greek Abroad” podcast and his YouTube travel vlog, in which he documents his time on tour. From some 40,000 YouTube subscribers ahead of the Australian Open, he now has more than 140,000.
“I started last year, inspired by some other people. When I’m desperate sometimes, when I feel down, I do these videos, I actually feel better,” said Tsitsipas. “It makes me realise that tennis is not the most important thing in life, that we all have some other talents that we don’t know about. It kind of makes me more relaxed.”
No city has been captured with such passion as Melbourne; it was clearly a happy setting for the soulful Tsitsipas, who spoke during the event about his unique challenges on the ATP Tour.
“I was shy when I was a kid but not anymore. I learn to find my comfort when I’m with people,” he explained. “(But) not many of the players want to be friends on the Tour. That’s a problem. That’s an issue unless you speak the same language. That’s why you see all these Spaniards, Latin Americans, hang out with each other … but I would love to have more friends on tour.”
Until then, there’s the support of his family. While Tsitsipas trains at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy and has an advisor in Patrick Mouratoglou, father Apostolos is his coach on tour. In Australia, the presence of tennis-playing siblings Petros, Pavlos and Elisavet also provided a boost.
The fast-developing Stefanos is clearly leading by example. And from his Athens beginnings not so many years ago, “The Greek Abroad” has indeed travelled far.
You can read the full feature in the February/March issue of Australian Tennis Magazine – subscribe now!
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