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For Tsitsipas, tennis is as much about learning as it is about winning
For the talented 20-year-old Greek shotmaker, who beat Nikoloz Basilashvili to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open, life on tour is as much about learning as it is winning.
Published Jan 18, 2019
When 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas was called to the Australian Open’s main interview room on Friday, he may not have been properly dressed for the occasion. Compared to the summer heat outside, the room was cold, and—according to one eyewitness—so was he.
“He’s frozen and shivering,” French reporter Carole Bouchard wrote on Twitter. “Learning the hard way.”
Life is a learning experience for Tsitsipas these days. Last year, the loose-limbed, long-haired Greek native made the leap from talented hopeful to Next Gen fixture in what felt like a matter of minutes. Actually, it took four whole months: As of April 2018, he was ranked No. 71; by the end of August, he was No. 15, exactly where he is today.
While Tsitsipas’ rise has been meteoric, we’ve found out plenty about him already; enough to know that he’s the most thoughtful and adventurous of the ATP’s young guns off the court, and its most complex and interesting talent on it.
Along with his tennis game, Tsitsipas has also upped his social-media game over the last year. At times, he seems as enamored of making video reports of his travels as he is of playing tennis. Last month, during the long trip Down Under, Tsitsipas tweeted, “Sometimes it makes me really wonder if it’s worth carrying such a big camera while traveling. Sometimes I feel like quitting my travel vlogs...but I just love creating travel content so much!”
Most tennis players, whether out of practicality or incuriosity, see little of the world around them, outside of airports, hotels and tennis facilities. The focus is on winning matches, not expanding horizons. Tsitsipas is the rare young pro who can’t help but try to do both. Like a philosophy-reciting college kid on a backpack tour of the world, he engages with what he sees, and and tweets out the deep thoughts that come to him along the way.
“We are all capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to believe.”
“The French revolution is closer than you might think. I saw it with my own eyes this afternoon, I saw frustration and anger in people’s eyes.”
“When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white you photograph their souls.”
“I pretty much operate on adrenaline and ignorance.”
On Friday in Melbourne, Tsitsipas admitted that he was an introvert when he was younger, but that life on tour had helped him come out of his shell.
“I’m not shy. Actually, I was shy when I was a kid but not anymore,” he said. “I learn to find comfort when I’m with people. I think I’m comfortable meeting new people and having a discussion with someone...But I would love to, yeah, have more friends on tour.”
Tsitsipas’ game is similarly multifaceted and difficult to pigeonhole, but he’s learning to be comfortable with it, too. He’s not a baseline bomber or a jack-rabbit retriever, but rather something in between. He’s 6’4”, which allows him to have a bomb serve, but he’s also a wiry 183 pounds, which allows him to be quick around the court. With his one-handed backhand, he can play with finesse, or move to the net.
It’s the type of game that, like Roger Federer’s once upon a time, can take a while to develop. Yet it all came together for Tsitsipas over the course of a week at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last August. There he put together a magically unlikely run to the final, beating Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Kevin Anderson, Alexander Zverev and Kevin Anderson before losing to Rafael Nadal. Tsitsipas was, suddenly, a made man on tour, and he’s maintained that high level since.
But his life on the court has also been a learning experience. Tsitsipas may have a philosopher’s soul, but he still has a young man’s excess of nervous energy. And like a lot of other young man, he can let it out in regrettable ways. During a self-punishing tirade at the Citi Open in July, Tsitsipas banged his palm into his skull so many times that the video of the moment went viral. In Basel in October, Tsitsipas was criticized for snatching his racquet away from a ball girl, and later apologized. On Friday in Melbourne, he yelled in the direction of a linesman who made a bad call on a crucial point, and stared him down. Again, Tsitsipas was contrite afterward.
“It was the heat of the moment. I said some really bad things,” Tsitsipas confessed. “I regret saying them. But I really wanted this really bad...So I was really frustrated. I didn’t quite think what I was saying. I wish I could change that and wouldn’t say that. It’s not the right attitude.”
Tsitsipas is self-aware enough to know when he’s wrong, and to own up to it. And in the end, he got what he “really wanted” on Friday: A tough, four-set win over a stubborn opponent in Nikoloz Basilashvili. But passing that test only brings up a tougher one: A fourth-round encounter with Roger Federer. Tsitsipas and Federer have yet to face off on tour, but they did meet in a spirited match at Hopman Cup earlier this month, which Federer won in two tiebreakers.
“He could be my son,” Federer joked afterward.
We’ll get a better idea of exactly where the Greek’s game stands when he gets his next lesson, from Father Federer. Will Tsitsipas receive a master class, or could he end up teaching an old tennis dog a few new tricks?
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