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Tsitsipas, the shock of an unexpected defeat against Safiullin

The defeat of Stefanos Tsitsipas against Roman Safiullin in the quarter-finals in Marseille (6-4, 6-4), deprives the Marseille tournament of a heavily anticipated Auger-Aliassime v Tsitsipas semi-final.

Stefanos Tsitsipas AO loss 2022 AI/Reuters/Panoramic

It was the marquee matchup that director Jean-François Caujolle and the Marseille public dreamed of. Stefanos Tsitsipas, seeded number 1, against Félix Auger-Aliassime, seeded number 3, in the semi-finals. But the rematch of the Rotterdam final will not take place. The ATP 250 will line up two surprise semi-finalists on Saturday:

• Benjamin Bonzi at the bottom of the table (against world number 7 Andrey Rublev);
• And Roman Safiullin, qualifier ranked163 in the world.

The two men played their first quarter-final on the ATP tour on Friday. Here they are in the last four.

If the clear qualification of Bonzi against world no 15 Aslan Karatsev (6-1, 6-3) created an aura of surprise for the Marseille public, the real thunderclap came when Safiullin confidently moved past Tsitsipas, 6- 4, 6-4. For the world no 4, this defeat against the 163rd player at the ATP is deeply shocking – nothing foreshadowed it.

TSITSIPAS STOPPED IN HIS TRACKS

The Greek had made a successful start to the season – semi-final at the Australian Open, final in Rotterdam – but his momentum ran out on Friday.

This setback echoes his defeat a year ago, also in Marseille, against Pierre-Hugues Herbert, then 93rd in the world and future finalist. But on paper it is much more striking because Tsitsipas had not lost to a player ranked above 100 in the world since his formative years, before his victory at the Next Gen Masters.

We have to go back to September 2018 in Metz (Berankis) to find traces of a defeat against the 103rd in the world, and his previous loss against a player of Safiullin’s level dates back to a period when he mainly played Challengers. It was in March 2018 in Guadeloupe against Cristian Garin, then ranked outside of the top 200.

13 break points faced by Tsitsipas

On the court, the run of play was also stunning. The day after a solid match against Hugo Gaston (6-3, 7-6), in which he produced excellent serving and first-strike tennis, Tsitsipas failed on all counts.

Safiullin’s return game was violent, and immediately effective. “I was surprised by the level of his return on my first ball”, admitted Tsitsipas, who had to face 13 break points (11 saved) and never really solved the problems he faced.

The Greek also suffered in his return games, only earning a single break point, which was promptly cancelled by Safiullin, winner of 89 percent of the points behind his first serve. “He’s not the biggest server on the circuit, but it’s true that he places his balls very well,” says Tsitsipas.

“I felt bad at the start of the match,” Tsitsipas lamented afterwards. “I should have done things differently on my service games, being more aggressive and entering the court more. It would have been another [story]. I was not powerful enough, not precise enough, weaker than usual, maybe because I had to share the court during the warm-up and I didn’t play crosscourt [in warmups] today.”

Tsitsipas was supervised on Thursday by his new technical consultant Thomas Enqvist, and not by a duo made up of the Swede and his father Apostolos, who officially remains his coach but who has not been present much since the semi-final in Australia, during which Daniil Medvedev got angry at his alleged coaching.

Safiullin nearly pulled off a similar upset against Shapovalov at ATP Cup

How far can Safiullin go? At 24, the winner of the 2015 junior Australian Open is barely beginning to touch the level promised by his results at the time, when he was the second best in the world in his category. Weakened by a nagging shoulder injury, he started 2022 with two singles wins over Arthur Rinderknech and James Duckworth at the ATP Cup, before returning to the routine of early defeats.

“He also worried my friend Denis Shapovalov a lot in the semi-finals,” recalled Félix Auger-Aliassime, which the score confirms: 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

“If he plays in the semi-finals like he played against Stefanos, it will be very difficult for me,” commented Auger-Aliassime in the wake of his victory against Ilya Ivashka, seeded 5 (6-3, 6-4). “He has a striking quality that few players possess. It serves well. He can knock me over with a single strike. He is a player who will have good times very soon. His victory against Tsitsipas is by far the greatest he has known.”

The Greek will make the trip to Acapulco where he will have to defend the points of his painful 2021 final against Alexander Zverev.

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