How do you like your tennis – full of flawless execution or overflowing with drama in spite of subpar play?
Friday’s quarter-final match at the Rogers Cup between Sascha Zverev of Germany and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece was not a chef d’oeuvre by any means but it was bubbling with excitement for all two hours and 28 minutes of its action.
Tsitsipas has been the 19-year-old revelation of the tournament, sadly for Canadians who were hoping it would be another 19-year-old – Denis Shapovalov. In the second round Tsitsipas defeated No. 8-ranked Dominic Thiem 6-3, 7-6(6), in the third it was No. 10 Novak Djokovic 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-3 and on Friday it was No. 3 Zverev by a 6-3, 7-6(11), 6-4 score – including two match points saved in the second-set tiebreak.
A week ago in Washington, Zverev outplayed Tsitsipas 6-2, 6-4 and looked to be about to repeat that result when he led 6-3, 5-2 on Friday on centre court at the Aviva Centre.
But Tsitsipas held serve to 5-3, broke to 5-4 and the whole complexion of the match changed. In the rumbling-bumbling tiebreak that ensued there was an erratic mix of ineptitude and excellence until Tsitsipas finally converted his fifth set point when Zverev misfired wide with a cross-court backhand.
His immediate reaction was to smash his racquet with such force that it catapulted over the net (above) and came to rest on Tsitsipas’ side.
It was around that time that the under-appreciated Sportsnet commentator Jimmy Arias noted that he was now beginning to understand how the 21-year-old German had performed so well in non-Grand Slam events but stumbled in Grand Slams – not making a single quarter-final in 21 attempts until this year’s French Open.
The second-set tiebreak was not stellar but there were flashes of brilliance – including a rollicking rally to get Tsitsipas to 8-7, which he finished (above) with a backhand volley. There had also been a gutsy backhand down-the-line by the Greek on the first match point he faced at 6-5 that was so bold that it forced a forehand wide of the far sideline by Zverev.
A large contingent of Greek fans, and an equally large number of sympathizers, created a raucous atmosphere – including a point during the tiebreak when an over-enthusiastic fan shouted out in the middle of a rally.
The third set meant more frustration for Zverev as he failed to convert five break points – including love-40 – in Tsitsipas’ second service game.
Finally it came down to the final game with Zverev serving down 4-5 and, after taking a 30-love lead, he committed four unforced errors, the final one a double fault long. (A Hawk-Eye view showed that Zverev’s forehand, called out on the 30-15 point, had actually been in but it was not challenged by the German.)
That would just be another part of the extreme frustration Zverev felt after the match. But for Tsitsipas, a day after getting what he called his “greatest” win when he upset Djokovic, there was incredulity. He said “I don’t think that it’s real” during his courtside interview. For his adoring fans, it was delirium.
As thrilling and eventful as the match was, there was more theatre to come post-match. Zverev flatly declared in his media interview, “I think the match was absolutely pathetic on all levels.”
Having won the ATP 500 tournament in Washington last week, he also suggested that fatigue was a reason for his poor play – 34 winners and 46 unforced errors
compared to 28 and 42 for Tsitsipas. “Look, at the end of the day,” he said, “I played a lot of matches and physically I’m quite tired.”
He added another quip that was disrespectful to the Rogers Cup event, especially as defending champion, saying “I’m actually quite happy to have a few days off before another Masters (Cincinnati) and then a Grand Slam (US Open).”
Zverev doubled-down on his crankiness, adding, “To be honest, we played three sets and all three sets should have been three, three and three. If we would have played best-of-five, that’s what the score would have been.”
Tsitsipas had been informed of Zverev’s remarks before he came to his media conference and arrived with a well-considered response. “I’m working with a sports psychologist that’s really good,” he said. “And he told me something, and I’ve remembered it for like four or five years – that a good player can be seen in (judged by) his bad day. And I completely agree with that.”
He continued, “The level of tennis today, in my opinion, was not the highest. It was all right. People seemed to love it, love the show and everything.”
It appears the two are more rivals than friends. Tsitsipas basically confirmed that when he met the media and said about his relationship with Zverev, “it’s not too bad, it’s not too good.”
Referring to the NextGen group of under-22 players such as Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric, he said, “most of my friends on tour are not NextGen players. They’ve been years on the tour.”
If Tsitsipas is a bit of an outsider among his peers, he would not be the first, and certainly not the first of Greek extraction. Pete Sampras, the 14-time Grand Slam champion from the U.S., was known to stick to himself – unlike his arch-rival Andre Agassi who was much more outgoing.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim last week, Tsitsipas was rhapsodic about a week he spent after Wimbledon all by himself in the British Virgin Islands where he got away from family – including his father Apostolos who is his coach – and revelled in solitary time away from any tennis connections.
It’s probably no surprise that he was more keen on football (soccer) as a youth. But once he won a tournament in France as an 8-year-old, he decided he preferred a sport where everything depended on himself.
However sociable he is with his own generation, he’s certainly establishing himself at the head of the class as he approaches the end of his teenage years on Sunday. It is ironic that both Roger Federer, who was supposed to play the Rogers Cup, and homebrew Felix Auger-Aliassime, beaten on Wednesday, celebrated their birthdays this week on August 8th but are not around. But it could be Tsitsipas playing for the Rogers Cup title on Sunday – his 20th birthday – if he survives another test against a top-10 player, No. 6 Kevin Anderson, in Saturday’s afternoon semi-final.
The 6-foot-4 native of Athens was the International Tennis Federation World Junior champion in 2016 but he didn’t win a Grand Slam junior title that year –when Shapovalov won Wimbledon and Auger-Aliassime the US Open. Shapovalov ousted him in the French Open quarter-finals and the Wimbledon semi-finals while Auger-Aliassime beat him in the US Open semi-finals.
Tsitsipas started 2018 ranked No. 91 and will be at least No. 18 (ahead of No. 32 Shapovalov) no matter what happens in the semi-finals and possibly the final of the Rogers Cup.
Son of a former top Russian tennis player, Julia Salnikova, and Apostolos, a Greek tennis coach, Tsitsipas is a driven young man. Asked whether talent or ambition was more important for a tennis player, he emphatically responded, “ambition beats talent. If you don’t have ambition, you’re zero.”
He was the first Greek player in 45 years to reach an ATP final when he played – losing 6-2, 6-1 – Rafael Nadal in Barcelona in May, and also the first player from
his country to rank in the top-100 since the ATP introduced computer rankings in 1973.
His tennis home base is at the Mouratoglou academy in Paris and he said earlier this week in Toronto that he’s friends with Australian Greek players Thanasi Kokkinakis and the retired Mark Philippoussis, both of whom speak Greek.
He’s proud of his Greek heritage and frequently expresses the desire to help grow tennis in his homeland.
On Thursday night, he had dinner with friends in Greek-town in Toronto, while the ‘Taste of the Danforth’ Greek festival (the largest in North America) is in full swing.
“I saw many Greek flags around the court, and they were cheering for me in Greek,” he said after Friday’s match. “It felt like I was playing at home. It felt so nice to have all the crowd cheering for you. And most of the people were not even Greek, and I still felt like they were supporting me more than my opponent who is a top-5 player. “So it felt great out on the court playing in front of such an amazing crowd.”
Engaging, thoughtful, good-looking and possessed of an attractive attacking game featuring a solid one-handed backhand, Tsitsipas seems destined to be a big part of next generation of tennis stars.