As the life and times of Stefanos Tsitsipas play out—and make no mistake, his is already an epic journey, personally chronicled—his thoughts and emotions will continue to take on many forms. Tsitsipas is, after all, an extremely rare combination for a professional tennis player: lover and fighter, artist and athlete, dreamer and worker.
Tsitsipas’ capacity for introspection summons up the late stage Andre Agassi, wise and grateful for the chance to have earned a livelihood playing game. Further back in tennis history, there was Guillermo Vilas, who, when he wasn’t hitting tennis balls for hours on end, enjoyed writing poems and making music.
But alas, for Agassi and Vilas, it was difficult to integrate reflection with competition. Once retired, Agassi confessed his profound ambivalence for tennis, largely the result of an over-the-top father who addressed his son harshly—even after he’d won Wimbledon. Within Vilas, there was a schism between the lyricism he cherished and the raw pragmatism of his baseline-based game, a playing style often fueled more by narrow attrition than eclectic artistry.
Tsitsipas offers the possibility of a seamless new connection between work and play, tennis and life, consistency and bedazzlement. Begin with his words. Following his quarterfinal win Friday over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Tsitsipas said, “I take every opportunity I have to play with magnitude and respect.” Magnitude? That’s not a word one hears often in press conferences.
Yet when you watch Tsitsipas play, his quest for grandeur is obvious. At first glance, Tsitsipas is a shot-maker, constantly looking to break open points with sharp forehands and, that rarity in contemporary pro tennis, a one-handed backhand. It’s the tennis version of an aspiring creative soul, of someone seeking to dare greatly and even let the world know it.
“I would like a career like Roger Federer,” Tsitsipas said earlier this year. “I don’t mean what he has achieved, I mean I would like to have a career as long as his. My goal is to create the best possible memories and moments on and off the court.”
But it’s dangerous to be labeled a shot-maker, an appetite for the grand gesture coming at the expense of quotidian. Shot-makers are often regarded as streaky, hardly a desired attribute if the player is seeking to generate sustained excellence. This, by the way, was the early perception of a young Australian named Rod Laver.
Then again, we surely can’t strictly consider Tsitsipas a grinder, akin to the likes of Novak Djokovic, David Goffin, Kei Nishikori. It is hard to imagine him winning a match with one deep drive after another. Surely, a Tsitsipas match must feature a diving volley, a sharply angled backhand, a series of big serves.
So this uncertainty is part of what makes Tsitsipas compelling. Skilled players emerge all the time, but some are incremental, excelling at a prevailing style. Tsitsipas represents something else, an amalgamation of shots, movements, tactics and, highly intriguing, energy. Like an F-14, Tsitsipas burns a lot of fuel during his matches. Is this merely the sign of youth, or a manner we will get increasingly used to?
Best of all, Tsitsipas is a refreshing counter to a tennis archetype that’s emerged in the Open era: the world-weary pro, unnerved by the challenges of competition, anguished by the demands of fame. Examples include the young Agassi, Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Marat Safin. Most recently, there’s been Nick Kyrgios, his fear of life in the arena cloaked by his quest to be incredibly cool.
Cool? Tsitsipas prefers hot. “I have no reason to develop a thick skin,” he said. “I’m authentic, I think people understand that. I don’t try to pretend or do something that does not express me and is not part of my responsibility.” In this sense, Tsitsipas is a throwback to the tennis player of an earlier time —happy vagabond, trekking across the globe, armed with racquets and dreams.
Let us hope he never becomes jaded.