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When Stefanos Tsitsipas was three years old, he was handed a tennis racquet for the first time—as well as a script.

Born into a tennis family, Tsitsipas was coached by his dad Apostolos and mom Julia, a former pro, with all three of his younger siblings also playing the sport. It’s a story that has been told countless times: a gifted child picks up a sport before he can read or write, and then he eventually dedicates his life to the grueling pursuit of athletic greatness.

The Greek player’s path was seemingly laid out before him. But fitting into a box has never been Tsitsipas’ specialty. The 23-year-old’s approach to tennis feels less like an all-consuming job and more like a passionate Gen-Z’s main hustle, or one of his many creative interests.

“I think tennis is one of the best jobs in the world, playing tennis, making it for a living,” Tsitsipas said in 2021. “I'm employed on my own, I'm self-employed, and that's what I love about this. I get to choose when I work, where I work…

“The beauty of [tennis] is being able to express yourself through your strokes and being able to showcase your personality in front of thousands, maybe even millions of people everywhere around the world.”

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The ATP’s artist-in-residence, Tsitsipas has dabbled in video blogging, podcasting, photography and other endeavors as he seeks a reprieve from the months-long tour grind. Recently, he has collaborated with Instagrammer ‘Dude With Sign’ in New York, and TikToker Khaby Lame in Turin. He has the ability to know when to set the racquets down and unplug, and travel without the purpose of going to a tournament or a beach in the Maldives.

Tsitsipas keeps his relationship to tennis strictly professional—and that might be what has helped him to stay balanced during the tour’s highs and lows, and to shake off some tough losses and ‘what if’ moments in 2021.

One such moment came early on in the season, with Tsitsipas seeking his first ATP Masters 1000 title in Miami, a tournament whose field notably did not include Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Generational rivals Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev were already out by the time Tsitsipas took to the court against Hubert Hurkacz in the quarterfinals. But after holding a 6-2, 4-1 lead, a stunning defeat to the eventual champion had Tsitsipas crashing back down to earth.

Tsitsipas—and all the tennis world—wondered, when would he get another chance as good as this one?

“I was feeling very stressed. I felt like it was my opportunity,” Tsitsipas admitted in Miami. “I did quite well, but I feel like there was more space for me to show something greater… It’s a very disappointing loss.”

It would have been easy for the Greek to get down on himself for squandering his chances, but in the end he didn’t give himself enough time to linger on self-doubts.

WATCH: Tsitsipas tops Murray in five sets at US Open

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After taking a brief step away from social media, Tsitsipas returned with a vengeance for the clay season. He lifted his first Masters 1000 trophy at his very next tournament, in Monte Carlo. It was the start of a period of dominance, as he went on to hold match points against Nadal in the Barcelona final and pick up a second ATP trophy in Lyon, before heading into Roland Garros as one of the tournament favorites. After dispatching Medvedev in a straight-set quarterfinal and Zverev in a five-set semifinal, Tsitsipas had a two-set lead against Djokovic in his first Grand Slam final, before the world No. 1 completed a historic comeback to defeat him.

While Tsitsipas' 2021 could be know more for some of his close losses than his many victories, he went 55-19 overall—23-9 on clay—and was among the tour's Top 5 from March 8 onward.

It was a long-awaited breakthrough for Tsitsipas, but he still managed to surprise, emerging as one of the ATP’s most talented clay-court players, despite listing grass as his favorite surface. He reached his first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, and not his favorite Wimbledon. He's proven to be an all-surface threat at all times.

His favorite shot is his forehand, but it’s his signature one-handed backhand that gets all the attention: a Caravaggio-esque snap of it even earned a spot among TIME's Top 100 Photos of 2021.

Stefanos Tsitsipas strikes a one-handed backhand at Roland Garros.

Stefanos Tsitsipas strikes a one-handed backhand at Roland Garros.

Tsitsipas continues shrugging off labels and expectations in favor of going at his own pace. Despite his ‘old soul from the old world’ vibes, he is only 23 and still among the youngest in the ATP Top 100.

“I started the year with the intention to eat better, sleep better and put my body in a better schedule. It was all for my tennis,” Tsitsipas reflected. “Overall, I am happy where I stand and I want to take an extra step and aim even higher next year.

“That will require new fresh goals, and also becoming more professional. Working to find where the one percent lies, or the five percent, where I can benefit from it.”

Although his season ended abruptly due to an elbow injury, there is still much to be proud of in his best season yet.

“Things often get tougher before they get easier, but with each struggle we get an opportunity to create our own unique story,” he wrote while recovering from elbow surgery.

Here’s to an even more exciting chapter to come for his story in 2022.