Since his remarkable run to the semifinals at Roland Garros in early October, the ever fascinating Stefanos Tsitsipas has been mired in a downward spiral. The Greek stylist took some time off to heal an ailing leg injury, went to Vienna and lost early to Grigor Dimitrov, and then moved on to the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris where he was ousted in his first match by Ugo Humbert in a final-set tie-break.
Clearly Tsitsipas was not in a positive frame of mind as he headed into the Nitto ATP Finals to defend the most important title he has yet secured in his young career. Before the tournament, Tsitsipas was still talking about the lingering, if lessening pain in that leg. He then lost a hard-fought battle against Dominic Thiem in his lead-off round robin contest as the Austrian reversed the result of a scintillating 2019 final in London’s 02 Arena.
So Tsitsipas knew full well that his quest for a second crown in a row at the season-ending event for the top eight players in the world essentially all came down to his critical showdown against the swiftly ascending Andrey Rublev. The Russian had made an apprehensive ATP Finals debut against Rafael Nadal, and he, too recognized the significance of this appointment. If Rublev could prevail against the Greek performer, he would remain very much in the hunt with one round-robin skirmish remaining against Thiem in the London Group 2020.
Perhaps that is why he commenced this duel somewhat frozen mentally while Tsitsipas was blazing from all parts of the court and thoroughly in command. It took the 22-year-old a mere 19 minutes to sweep through the opening set, 6-1. He won 24 of 34 points, took 16 of 19 points on his own serve, connecting with 74% of his first serves and totally setting the technical and tactical agenda.
Tsitsipas put on a dazzling display while Rublev struggled to find his range. He kept the Russian almost entirely at bay with the supreme precision of his delivery, aggressively struck second-serve returns, timely journeys to the net and brilliantly versatile shot-making off the ground.
He opened and closed the opening game with aces, holding on at 30.Then Tsitsipas broke in the second game before holding at love in the third. On his way to 3-0, he swept 12 of 16 points. Rublev found his bearings somewhat to hold on in the fourth game at love, but that was nothing more than a brief and temporary reprieve. Tsitsipas poured in four of five first serves to hold at 15 for 4-1, broke at the cost of only one point for 5-1 and held at love to close out the set on another run of three consecutive games, taking 12 of 14 points in that span.
Rublev, however, is a top of the line professional of growing stature and awareness. He found his serving rhythm in the second set and began returning with more consistency and authority. On his way to 3-3 in that second set, Rublev conceded only one point on his delivery. In the seventh game, Rublev was perched precariously at 15-40 but he collected four clutch points in a row to get the hold.
Soon Tsitsipas served to stay in the set at 4-5, having not even faced a break point until that juncture. But here he faltered flagrantly and lost his serve at love. Rublev triumphed, 6-4, forcing the match into a third set.
At 1-1 in that final set, Rublev was incessantly under siege, facing five break points and being taken to deuce five times as well. But he handled the pressure commendably. He did not miss a first serve on any of the break points and released winners on three of them. He held on steadfastly for 2-1.
Once again at 3-3, Rublev found himself in danger as he trailed 0-30 but he came on strong and swept four points in a row with cool authority to reach 4-3. When Tsitsipas served at 5-6, he was two points from defeat at 0-30 but a flurry of first serves carried him out of that corner to 6-6.
Fittingly, it would all be settled in a turbulent tiebreak. Tsitsipas moved inexorably to 5-2 and was seemingly poised to close out the compelling account. But Rublev was undismayed by his predicament, producing a service winner and an ace to close the gap, reaching 5-5 on an errant forehand from Tsitsipas.
When Rublev garnered his fourth point in a row by prevailing in a 25 stroke exchange as Tsitsipas missed an arduous forehand passing shot, the Russian was improbably on the edge of victory. He was serving at match point with a 6-5 lead. A startling comeback triumph seemed entirely possible.
But the Russian was much too conscious of the scoreline, double faulting into the net. Tsitsipas then pounced, lacing an inside out forehand with too much pace for Rublev to handle. From match point down, Tsitsipas was now ahead match point. Serving at 6-7, Rublev was probably still thinking about the fatal double fault. He missed an easy high ball off the forehand. Tsitsipas was victorious 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (6).
Surviving an ordeal like he did against Rublev will serve Tsitsipas well when he takes on Nadal for a place in the semifinals.
“It is an opportunity for me to fight even harder and give my very best out on the court,” he said after his win over Rublev. “I know it will require a lot of physical effort, and I’m going to have to go through a lot of pain and suffering, so it is going to be a difficult match against Rafa. I really want it a lot. I’m really looking forward to bringing my best tennis. It’s a great challenge.”
Tsitsipas has only beaten the renowned Spaniard once in six previous head-to-head clashes, but they have not collided since last year in the round robin at the ATP Finals. Nadal was victorious, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5. Their meeting this time could very well go again right down to the wire as that one did on the same court. Tsitsipas rescued himself against Rublev and that could make him all the more dangerous against Nadal. He will undoubtedly swing more freely against the great left-hander.
“I was very concentrated on our match last year and was playing each point individually,” Tsitsipas said of his upcoming meeting with Nadal. “I’m going to try and play aggressive tennis. I just have to be more solid than him to win. I know that. I have to start strong and finish even stronger.”