Boy Meets World: Rising star Tsitsipas outlasts Donaldson in fifth set

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Stefanos Tsitsipas will face Thomas Fabbiano in the third round at Wimbledon. (Getty Images)

LONDON—When he isn’t playing tennis, Stefanos Tsitsipas’ biggest hobby is photography. Over the last two days, his second-round match versus Jared Donaldson generated enough vivid, passionate images to fill a coffee table book that will be eternally cherished by his loving family. But those memories will also be a testimony to the long, solitary journey of a five-set triumph.

Tucked into the southwest corner of Court 18 was the Tsitsipas posse, an ardent group comprised of father-coach Apostolos, mother Julia, brothers Petros and Pavlos, sister Elisavet—all tennis players. To Apostolos’ left were two coaches from the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy. There were also additional friends and an agent. 

The Tsitsipas contingent lived and died with every point—“Bravo!” and “Allez!” and “Let’s go!” There was even a warning for a coaching violation. It was a grand celebration of a 19-year-old who conducts himself with his own mix of passion and precision. Julia was a superb Russian junior who once beat Virginia Wade. Apostolos set out to learn what it took to be a wise coach. As they watched their prize son, Julia took it in calmly, well aware that today’s match was one of but many. Apostolos was less tranquil—a shrug, a raised eyebrow, at one point draping his left arm over the Mouratoglou coach who sat next to him for much of the match. Life was meant to be a drama, filled with passion and joy and those invariable downs. Wasn’t it? 

One minute short of an hour, Tsitsipas took the first two sets, 6-3, 6-2. He didn’t just win points. He created them, a chained, evocative medley of aces (13 in those first two sets, many north of 120 M.P.H.), lacerating forehands hit crosscourt and inside-out; and, most pleasing to longstanding aficionados, a luscious backhand that was mostly fizzing with topspin but also intermittently and deliciously sliced, be it as approach or drop shot.

Past and future converged in the present of this lanky Greek, Tsitsipas conjuring up memories of dazzlers past—the audacity of Laver, the aggression of Sampras, the physicality of Becker. The future? Perhaps great matches to come versus such peers as Denis Shapovalov, the slightly elder Nick Kyrgios, even the dean of them all, Roger Federer.

And Donaldson in that first hour? Not a factor. Just another "bland" American, appropriately tall, studied, technically proficient; but hardly inspired. Tsitsipas was Western Civilization, the mix of a Russian mother and Greek father, his racquet channeling arts and letters as he closed out the second set with three straight aces. Donaldson was that sturdy, friendly guy in your dorm who was taking econ and would soon enough be working at some rich alum’s hedge fund.    

But then it all changed. Donaldson wasn’t about to go away. He was never going to go away. Recall that he had spent many years in his youth training in Argentina. Recall that at the last major, on the same-numbered field court at Roland Garros, Donaldson had fought through cramps and even twice tossed in underhand serves before losing to Grigor Dimitrov, 10-8 in the fifth. Count him out at your own peril. 

Throughout the third, Donaldson began to hit with more depth and hang in more rallies. It was hard to imagine that Tsitsipas could sustain such a dazzling level of shot making. He didn’t. Tsitsipas served at 3-4, ad out, second serve. Donaldson saw his opportunity, hurling himself at a meager, 95-M.P.H. delivery to crush a down-the-line forehand winner. The American held at 30 to snap up the third set, 6-3.        

But as the fourth got underway, Tsitsipas was unfazed. The loss of the third was only a mere interruption. Donaldson served at 1-2. On each of the next two points, Tsitsipas ran down a drop shot, on the first closing it out with a smash, on the second, responding to a rifle-shot of a Donaldson pass with a deft drop volley. Though Tsitsipas would earn four break points in this game, Donaldson repelled all of them. At 2-3, another came and went.

With Tsitsipas serving at 3-all, everything changed. A few sprinkles fell. Holding a game point at 40-30, Tsitsipas shanked a forehand. On the next point, he netted a facile volley. Donaldson’s forceful backhand helped him earn the break to go up 4-3 in the fourth. It was now 6:47 p.m. The match was suspended. At one point, officials came to the court in hopes of a restart. But it was not to be.

WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 3 at Wimbledon:

Wednesday it had ended on a chilly, London evening. Thursday afternoon, at 1:18 p.m., it resumed on a muggy summer afternoon. But as the Tsitsipas posse reclaimed its seats—one member waving a Greek flag, Apostolos now leaving a vacant seat to his left—Donaldson was the one in command of the energy. Donaldson served to take it into the fifth, firing an ace at 15-30 and nailing a smash when down break point. This was the game when Tsitsipas received a coaching warning violation. 

But while the posse sought to find coherence and continue their beloved prodigy, Stefanos was now about to leave them all behind. He would always love his family and friends, would always cherish all each had done, would perhaps one day even play Davis Cup with his brothers, celebrate the triumphs of his sister. But now, as Donaldson closed out the fourth, what could any of his loved ones know—truly—about what it meant to play a fifth set, particularly one at Wimbledon?    

As the decider began, there seemed a chaotic quality to Tsitsipas’ game. “Keep going,” intoned Apostolos. Meanwhile, Donaldson knew that as much as Tsitsipas had transformed the court into a tapestry during those first two sets, inspiration could be overcome by perspiration. With Tsitsipas serving at 30-40 in the opening game, Donaldson rolled a mildly shanked backhand return, angled crosscourt and short just enough to put Tsitsipas into an awkward position. Engaged in the grimness of a fifth set, the man from Greece’s once-elegant one-handed backhand now flew wide to hand Donaldson the break. Art had given way to commerce.      

Even as Tsitsipas earned three break points in the next game, he appeared to lack coherence—and leg strength too. Serving at 2-1, 40-30, Donaldson cracked a sharp 123-M.P.H. serve to Tsitsipas’ backhand corner, setting up a rolling forehand crosscourt winner. 

It had been quite a week of five-setters for the Americans. Jack Sock had lost one in the first round. On Wednesday, Mackenzie McDonald had won one, 11-9 in the fifth. Today, John Isner had fought off two match points and gotten through. Up 3-1 in the fifth, Donaldson was eager to take a five-setter for only the second time in his career. 

Several years ago, noting how the number of teen prodigies had dropped in recent times, I discussed that occurrence with my Tennis Channel colleague, Jim Courier. My thought was conventional, that the increased physicality of tennis precluded precocity. But having been a first-hand witness to the teen genius of Michael Chang, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, Courier saw it differently. The greats, he said, would emerge as they were meant to emerge. There was no stopping brilliance.

Down 1-3, Tsitsipas closed out a love hold with consecutive aces. At 3-2, Donaldson played an extremely tight game, including a netted forehand off a lob and, at break point, a double-fault.

Fitting indeed that at 3-all, Patrick Mouratoglou entered Court 18, immediately occupying the seat next to Apostolos. The previous day he’d been focused on his most prominent charge, Serena Williams. Now he would be there at crunch time for Tsitsipas.

As Tsitsipas began to serve the 3-all game, Donaldson unloaded a magnificent inside-out forehand winner. But Tsitsipas was the one most aware of Becker’s famous statement about the fifth set not being about tennis. It would all be about adrenaline now, about hunger and persistence and finding the right shot when it mattered—or better yet, keeping in the point just long enough. At 40-30, Tsitsipas approached. Donaldson ripped a forehand pass down the line. Tsitsipas lunged for it. Was it really necessary to dive for it too? So it went, Tsitsipas’ volley going for a winner.

Donaldson next played his worst game of the match. Four horrific errors—a netted backhand, a backhand slice dribbled off the frame, a pair of overcooked forehands—saw him drop serve at 30. How had that happened? 

There was no stopping Tsitsipas now. Destiny was hardly rational. It was the province of the emotional, faith the belief in things unseen. Even when down 15-30, Tsitsipas boldly took a forehand on the rise and smacked and inside-out forehand winner. On the next point, Donaldson netted a forehand return. Match point, a short ball arrived to the Tsitsipas forehand. The task was simple: Hit it. Untouchable. Apostolos raised his right fist in the air. The posse rejoiced, jumped, hugged, jumped, hugged. In 48 hours, the boy had taken a major step towards tennis manhood.        

Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.


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