“For anyone worried about the future of men’s tennis after the Big 3 are gone, this match shows that the tour will be in good hands.”
It’s a phrase we’ve heard many times over the past 10 years. Whenever two younger players put on a dazzling show of skill, or win a serious title, we cling to the hope that there really will be life after Roger, Rafa and Novak. So far, we haven’t had to find out if it’s actually true.
We heard those words again from commentators, pundits and fans after Stefanos Tsitsipas’ 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over Dominic Thiem on Sunday in the final of the tour’s year-end championships in London. In this case, the hope seemed to be justified. The 02 Arena provides the biggest stage in the men’s game outside of the four Grand Slams, and the 21-year-old Tsitsipas and 26-year-old Thiem owned it like two veteran stars for two hours and 35 minutes. With 100-m.p.h. forehands, 90-m.p.h. one-handed backhands, and a willingness from both players to race forward to close points at net, this match took us back to the past, even as it gave us a glimpse of the future.
“It’s truly magnificent, this fight we put out today on this court,” Tsitsipas said after recording the biggest win of his career. “I think it makes our sport great. Tennis is all about this.”
In most matches, the baseline rallies are a battle between offense and defense. In this match, Tsitsipas and Thiem both seemed to be on the attack at all times. Thiem had slightly more firepower from the ground, especially on the backhand side; Tsitsipas had the defter transition game, and won more points at net.
At times, each looked supremely confident, but each of them also let down his guard and let his opponent back in the match. After squeaking through a blistering first-set tiebreaker 8-6, Thiem made three easy errors and was broken to start the second. From there, Tsitsipas picked up the baton and ran with it all the way to a 3-1 lead in the third set. Then it was the Greek’s turn to falter and give the break back. From 3-3 on, it was neck and neck down the home stretch. There was no choking, no whining, and no holding back; it was screaming ground strokes and full-blooded smashes all the way to the finish line.
In the end, Thiem’s way of winning points—hammering the ball from the backcourt—proved to be slightly higher risk, and slightly harder to repeat, than Tsitsipas’ more well-rounded attack. Down 3-4 in the deciding tiebreaker, Thiem won a point with a bullet backhand down the line. On the next point, though, he tried the same thing with his forehand and sent it just long. At 4-5, Thiem tried another bullet backhand, but Tsitsipas was ready and reflexed it back; all Thiem could do was go bigger on his next forehand, and he netted it. Live by the bomb, die by the bomb: Earlier in the week, Thiem had survived a third-set tiebreaker against Novak Djokovic by going for broke. This time he didn’t.
“It was pretty frustrating for me to be playing with such nerves for the first time in such a big event. I was up a break, I couldn’t manage to hold it,” Tsitsipas said. “Things were decided in the tiebreak and I’m so relieved by this outstanding performance and fight that I have on the court.”
Tsitsipas was making his ATP Finals debut, and his performance for the week was an astoundingly mature one. He opened with a breakthrough: his first win in six tries against Daniil Medvedev. From there, his self-assurance only seemed to grow. He beat Alexander Zverev to clinch a semifinal spot, lost a close one to Rafael Nadal, saved 11 of 12 break points to beat Roger Federer in straight sets in the semis, and weathered the Thiem barrage. Throughout the week, he played with a single-mindedness that has sometimes been lacking in his long, up-and down 2019 season.
“It’s been a roller-coaster. Holding this trophy right now feels amazing,” Tsitsipas said. “I’ve never received so much support in a stage like that, ever.”
So has the ATP found a successor to the Big 3, and a future No. 1, in Tsitsipas? We’ve heard that a few times over the last decade as well, especially at this event. Two years ago, Grigor Dimitrov won the title and seemed destined for even bigger things the following year; instead, his ranking plummeted. Last year, Zverev beat Federer and Djokovic back-to-back for the crown; this year, the German mostly spun his wheels. But Tsitsipas has at least two things going for him: (1) A desire to attack, and the varied game to do it well; (2) Ambition. After beating Federer, Tsitsipas said he wished that he had an “army” of fans behind him the way Federer does. In the final, he got that wish.
“They give me so much energy,” he said of the 02 crowd that chanted his name on Sunday. “They give me belief that I can achieve the things I want to achieve on the court.”
When Djokovic first arrived on tour, he wasn’t afraid to say that he wanted everything that Federer and Nadal had, and more. Tsitsipas seems to have the same aspiration, and the same flair for the self-dramatic.
This final was one of the best that the post-Big 3 generation has produced, and it inspired some of the loudest crowd noise we’ve heard from a match that didn’t include Djokovic, Federer or Nadal. If Tsitsipas and Thiem don’t turn out to be the future in 2020 and beyond, they still gave us a great way to say good-bye to 2019.