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Stefanos Tsitsipas in 2021: Progress, controversy, so close to first slam title

One set away from a first Grand Slam title, 2021 was a case of near but yet so far for the 23-year-old Greek

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Tennis Majors 2021 © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Stefanos Tsitsipas made more positive strides in 2021 with two more titles, including a first clay-court Masters 1000 in Monte-Carlo and came within a set of winning his first Grand Slam title when he led Novak Djokovic by two sets to love only to be worn down in five.

There were times, especially in the spring, when it looked as if he’d win that elusive slam title but a niggling elbow injury, which bugged him for much of the second half of the year, saw him end his season abruptly when he withdrew from the ATP Finals in Turin.

He courted controversy with his stretching of the rules when it came to bathroom breaks, but he also climbed two places in the rankings to No 4. The Greek will go into 2022 knowing there’s work to be done but that he’s on the right track to hit the very top.

  • Tsitsipas’ ranking at the end of 2020: 6
  • Tsitsipas’ ranking at the end of 2021: 4
  • Tsitsipas’ 2021 win-loss record: 55-19
  • Tsitsipas’ titles: 2
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Monte-Carlo
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Monte-Carlo

Best performance: Pushing Rafael Nadal to the limit in Barcelona

With 13 Roland-Garros titles, Rafael Nadal will surely go down as the greatest ever male player on a clay court. But for three hours and 38 minutes of gladiatorial battle, Tsitsipas matched the great Spaniard, and was one point away from taking the title.

What’s more, Tsitsipas showed the kind of grit and fight that Nadal is so famous for. He saved two match points when Nadal served for victory in the second set and then had a match point of his own in the final set, at 5-4, 30-40 on the Nadal serve. It was then that the fates intervened, a lucky net cord helping Nadal save the match point and the king of clay went on to win the set 7-5 and the match for a 12th Barcelona title.

It also makes me a better player and I can see myself reaching my limits.

Stefanos Tsitsipas

“I haven’t seen anyone fight like this,” Tsitsipas said. “He makes my life really difficult on court. I’m there to accept those terms and play based on his desire to fight. It also makes me a better player and I can see myself reaching my limits. It’s definitely something good to have for my personal development and growth.”

Best Grand Slam result: Reaching the Roland-Garros final

Until arriving at Roland-Garros in May, 2021, Tsitsipas had yet to reach a Grand Slam final, something his contemporaries – Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev – had already managed. The 23-year-old put that right with a string of superb performances, dropping just one set on his way to the semis, including a straight-set win over Medvedev in the quarters.

He then took care of Zverev in a five-set thriller to reach the final, showing great maturity when he was pegged back from two sets up to two sets all by the German, going on to win the match 6-3 in the final set.

In the final, Tsitsipas began brilliantly, taking the match to Djokovic and winning the first two sets. But a bathroom break seemed to galvanise Djokovic and as the world No 1 grew in strength, so the energy seeped out of Tsitsipas and he was worn down in the last three sets by the all-conquering Serb, a defeat which was even tougher for him to take after it was learned that his grandmother, such an important influence in his life, had died moments before the final.

“It’s very unfortunate, very sad in the same way because it was a good opportunity,” he said. “I was playing good. I was feeling good. Yeah, I lost an opportunity to do something better today.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas & Novak Djokovic at Roland-Garros in 2021
Stefanos Tsitsipas & Novak Djokovic at Roland-Garros in 2021

Best moment of the season: Winning Monte-Carlo Masters title

When the ATP Tour hit the clay in April, it coincided with Tsitsipas finding his groove. The Greek exuded confidence, his game perfectly suited to the surface and his mind and body aligning perfectly as he marched to the biggest clay-court title of his career.

Aslan Karatsev, Cristian Garin, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Dan Evans and Andrey Rublev were all swept aside without dropping a set. His serve was at its best, his returns effective, his movement supreme and his confidence as high as it’s ever been.

“I stepped up my game, brought this good game, good tennis,” he said. “I didn’t see (any) reason for me to leave from here without the trophy. I felt like I deserved it. I’ve put so much effort and so much concentration into it. Definitely something that I deserve. More opportunities like this is going to show up and come up in the future, so I need to be ready to show my consistency and prevail with that.”

“Worst” moment of the season: Bathroom-gate

As someone who sweats a lot, Tsitsipas has always been someone who takes his time when it comes to making a clothing change at the end of a set. But in 2021, his character was under the spotlight due to the length of the bathroom breaks he took, most notably at the US Open in the first-round encounter against former world No 1 Andy Murray.

After winning the fourth set to level at two sets apiece, Tsitsipas took a break which lasted around 10 minutes. He went on to win the final set and clinch a superb victory over a valiant Murray, but the Scot was furious, saying he had “lost respect” for the Greek.

“The issue is that you cannot stop the way that that affects you physically,” said Murray, who had a metal hip inserted in 2019. “When you’re playing a brutal match like that, stopping for seven (or) eight minutes, you do cool down. You can prepare for it mentally as much as you like, but it’s the fact that it does affect you physically when you take a break that long multiple times during the match.”

Tsitsipas defended himself but it left a sour taste in the mouth and the Greek had to answer questions about it for several weeks. It even prompted a rule change on the ATP Tour, with players set to have timed bathroom breaks from 2022.

Tsitsipas’ self-assessment: “Eager to go to that extra level”

Looking back on a year in which he went so close to that elusive first Grand Slam title, Tsitsipas was typically honest in his assessment of how 2021 had gone, from his point of view.

“There are a few things that I can develop and get better at, become more professional, as well,” he said. “Eager to go that extra level and put more attention to details and focus on a few things that might benefit me overall.

“Every single year I’m trying to add something new and keep my best qualities and maybe remove few things from outside or inside the court that might be either distracting or not as beneficial as I might think. So this is something that I have in my mind for next season, and I really want to put that into consideration.”

” I’m trying to give my last breath on the court and become more of, I don’t know, selfish player on the court, and unveil my killer attitude on the court.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tennis Majors’ assessment: Fitness, emotions key for 2022

Despite reaching his first Grand Slam final, it’s hard not to look back on 2021 as somewhat disappointing, given the way the second half of the year unfolded, particularly with the controversy surrounding the lengths of his bathroom breaks.

But Tsitsipas won two titles and on clay in the spring, he was at his very best and getting to within one set of a first slam title is an enormous achievement in itself.

It was interesting to hear Tsitsipas admit that the emotional effect of missing out in Paris may have affected him in the rest of the year. The 23-year-old is a sensitive soul and readily acknowledges that off-court issues can have a greater impact on him than perhaps on others.

But the fact remains that Tsitsipas has the game to get to the very top. Put it all together and he’ll win a Grand Slam title and it could well come in 2022, if he can shake off the elbow issue that hurt him at the end of 2021. The good thing is he can still improve a lot and that bodes well for the future. His desire is not in doubt.

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