Stefanos Tsitsipas has had a career year in 2019. Usually, when we use that term, we mean that a player has had his or her best season. And that has certainly been true for the 21-year-old Tsitsipas, who has moved from No. 15 to No. 5 in the rankings over the last 10 months. But in his case, “career” might also refer to the length of his season; he probably feels as if he’s packed a lifetime’s worth of peaks and valleys into this year. The ATP Finals are Tsitsipas’s 27th event of 2019; that’s more than anyone else in the Top 10, and 10 more than any of the Big 3 have played. Was it really just this season when he announced himself to the world by beating Roger Federer at the Australian Open? Wasn’t that, like, four years ago?
Coming into this week, I thought Tsitsipas would be burned out from the grind, and would take his share of lumps in his Finals debut. Instead, the 21-year-old appears poised to finish his year the same way he started it, with a flourish. In his first match, on Monday, he recorded his first win in six tries against Daniil Medvedev. He celebrated that breakthrough as if he had just won a major title, and the good feelings obviously continued on Wednesday, when he cruised past Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-2, in just 73 minutes. Every tennis fan knows that the number of points won doesn’t technically mean anything, but Tsitsipas’s 62 to 41 edge over Zverev was notably one-sided. This was a blow-out.
The first evidence that Tsitsipas was on his game came at 1-1 in the first set, when he wound up and drilled his one-handed backhand down the line for a winner. Zverev wasn’t far away from the ball, but he still couldn’t catch up to it. Had Tsitsipas been watching Dominic Thiem do the same thing, over and over and over, with his own one-hander, against Novak Djokovic the previous night? Either way, Tsitsipas continued hitting his backhand well, and using it effectively. He dipped passes at Zverev’s feet with it. He dropped it short to bring Zverev forward. He kept rallies alive with it, often just long enough to coax an error from Zverev’s increasingly shaky racquet.
By the second set, Tsitsipas was controlling the rallies with his forehand. He would backpedal to hit one inside out, sprint to the other side of the court to hit the next one crosscourt, and then finish at the net. Tsitsipas’s average hit point was right at the baseline, while Zverev’s was four feet behind it.
From Zverev’s perspective, this was another example of his one-step-up, one-step-back 2019. On Monday, he served and played brilliantly to beat Rafael Nadal for the first time; today, he looked uncertain again, first on his serve and then on his ground strokes. He won just 28 percent of his second serve points, and looked almost stationary compared to the whirling Tsitsipas.
With the win, Tsitsipas advances to the semifinals in London. He’s done a little bit of everything this year: Could he end it with his biggest title?