Stefanos Tsitsipas, dressed in a classic black and white t-shirt and shorts, beams into the camera from Lyon as we sit down for a video interview. We start with an important milestone for him, when he turned 22 in August last year and stopped being a ‘Next Gen’ player. In October, before the 2020 French Open, he had declared that he was now a ‘proper adult’.
“Adulthood is treating me well,” the 22-year-old the Greek player says. “It gives me freedom, gives me sole control of myself. It’s a great transition from being in the Next Gen spotlight for so long. I feel it’s time for me to get away from there and create my own journey.”
It is difficult to look beyond the ‘Big 3/Next Gen’ dichotomy in men’s tennis. For the past few years, the narrative has been dominated by the Next Gen (a term that was coined in 2017 to categorise players who were 21 and younger) steadily gaining ground on the Big 3, but the latter fiercely defending their position and maintaining an iron grip on the Grand Slams. We’re talking here, of course, about Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The Next Gen has not just been tasked with dethroning three of possibly the best men’s players in history, but the tag has piled on the pressure of expectations. At the Italian Open earlier this month, after losing to Rafael Nadal in the final, Novak Djokovic openly mocked the younger players, saying, “We, Rafa, me and Roger, are reinventing the Next Gen.”
“It has been a source of criticism,” says Tsitsipas, one of the flagbearers of the younger group of players. At 22, he is the youngest men’s player in the world top 5. “People going after us, asking us relentlessly when are we going to win a Grand Slam, when are we going to do that… We have been criticised for it and blamed for it. I try to not pay attention to this stuff. We enjoy our sport. We want to be the best versions of ourselves. Our time is going to come.”
Tsitsipas has always been “certain of his journey,” as he puts it, right from the beginning of his career. He had no blueprint for success, nor any established Greek tennis hero to emulate.
He is the oldest of four children of former tennis players Apostolos Tsitsipas, who used to work as a tennis coach at a resort, and Julia Salinikova, who represented the erstwhile Soviet Union in the Fed Cup (now called the Billie Jean King Cup). Despite starting off practicing on decrepit tennis courts in his hometown Vouliagmeni, 20 kms south of Athens, Tsitsipas dreamt of playing in the grandest arenas.
“It wasn’t easy for us,” Tsitsipas says of his early steps in the sport. “My mom was the first one to start travelling with me early in the junior years from the age of 8 to 12. Then my dad took over.
“I was the first one to pursue that dream with my father. The rest of my siblings were left behind in Greece with my mom. It was a gamble; there were financial difficulties in the family. It was messy. Both my parents weren’t making an income. After my dad quit his job, there wasn’t a steady income. With the support of family and relatives it got a bit easier. My aunt I would say was my biggest sponsor – let’s call it that.”
By the time the gangly Tsitsipas turned 18, he was the breadwinner of the family. His early success meant the family uprooted from Greece and settled down in France so Tsitsipas could train at Patrick Mouratoglou’s (Serena Williams’ coach) Academy. In 2016, he won the boys’ singles title at Wimbledon and won his first professional match in 2017.
“It has kind of escalated pretty quickly and it has evolved into this great magical thing that it is now. I put a lot of sacrifices, and all of my family has done a tremendous job of putting things together,” he says.
Tsitsipas won the Next Gen Finals in 2018, and in August 2019 became the first Greek player to break into the top-5. Later that year, he won the ATP World Tour Finals (where only the top-8 of the season compete). The Greek has beaten each of the Big 3 twice – all of his wins have come at Masters 1000 events or majors—and reached three Grand Slam semi-finals. He has the talent and the star power.
Art and soul
The twin peaks of his young career have been the wins over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
He turned the 2019 Australian Open into a break out party, defeating Federer 6-7(11), 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (5) in the fourth round. In February, he defeated Nadal 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 in the quarterfinal of the 2021 Australian Open. In doing so, he became only the second player to beat Nadal after being two sets down in a Grand Slam. On the days he beat them, he was a better poet than Federer and a fiercer warrior than Nadal.
“I see tennis as some sort of artistry,” says Tsitsipas. “Tennis is an art, we make it an art. Everything can be seen as creative and something that can be beautiful. I find this intersects very well with my personality.”
It is hardly art for art’s sake. His magical single-handed backhand can spew menace. The Greeks gave us geometry, and Tsitsipas explores its finer points with flourish on a tennis court. Like a player of his time, he expertly defends the baseline. Like a player from a different age, he is deft at the net. The subtleties in his game are as much meant to entertain as they are to defeat his rivals.
Tsitsipas doesn’t just try to construct points “the right way,” he just wins a ton of them. He is currently at No1 in the year-end race (calendar year as opposed to rolling 52-week ranking system) and has won the most number of matches this year: 33.
Swimming with the crocodiles
The 22-year-old also won his first Masters title on clay at Monte Carlo in April. He later got mighty close to upsetting Nadal in Barcelona and Djokovic in Rome. He held a championship point against the Spaniard at the Barcelona Open before going down 4-6, 7-6, 5-7 and was a set and break up against Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open before losing 6-4, 5-7, 5-7.
“They just never give up, they’re more selfish than anyone out there,” Tsitsipas says of the men’s tennis ruling class. “If you’re not selfish, and if you don’t want it bad enough, it’s never going to come. Whenever I face them I always try to test myself to see my level.”
The Big 3 in men’s tennis have been like Greek Gods on Mount Olympus. Formidable and immovable. Though Federer will turn 40 this year, and Nadal and Djokovic are in their mid-30s, Tsitsipas knows they are not going to fade away any time soon.
“I feel that the Top 3 are still going to play for quite a bit, so we will have to deal with it,” he says. “I think we’ve done a great job recently of winning some of the biggest ATP titles even when those crocodiles have been around in those tournaments. So that’s an indication that we’re on the right path.”
Peaking in Paris
Having played 11 tournaments so far this year, and compiled a win loss record of 33-8, Tsitsipas has some momentum going into the French Open. He will also take heart from the fact that he has reached semi-finals in the last two Grand Slam tournaments.
In Australia, after that epic win over Nadal, he barely had the energy to stand on his feet in the last-four clash against Daniil Medvedev. He later conceded he wasn’t yet ‘ready’ to win a major. Three months down the line, and with a lot more matches, and wins, under his belt, Tsitsipas is ready for a fight at the French Open.
“I want to try and replicate my form, but I know its two weeks of hell,” he says. “I think I have the capacity of achieving that. I’m pretty sure it will come at some point. I have faith in my tennis. I have huge belief that I’m capable of winning not just one Grand Slam, but many of them. It’s just a matter of time.”
To win a major, a player has to win seven best-of-five matches in a fortnight. It’s what separates boys from men; it is the ultimate coming-of-age story in tennis. And Tsitsipas has the wind in his sails.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai