Melbourne 2019 – 2021: Tsitsipas’ rise from young gun to ultimate competitor
In the space of two years, Stefanos Tsitsipas has turned himself from a talent into a genuine Grand Slam contender, with a little help from his friends
Two years ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas left Melbourne a broken man after he was crushed by Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Having beaten Roger Federer in the fourth round, the Greek believed he could go all the way to the title only to win just six games in a bruising beat-down by Nadal.
The defeat sat with Tsitsipas for many months – even in Monte Carlo in April that year he admitted he was still mulling it over in his head – but two years on, the 22-year-old is into the semi-finals of the Australian Open again, having produced a stunning performance as he came from two sets down to beat Nadal in the quarter-finals.
Physical, mental, emotional improvements
The road to this point has required improvements in all areas; physicality, mental strength and experience, but as he contemplates a semi-final against Daniil Medvedev on Friday (7:30 local time), team Tsitsipas believe he is in a good place to take that step closer to winning a Grand Slam title.
“Why not,” his father and coach, Apostolos Tsitsipas told Tennis Majors by phone from Melbourne on Thursday. “I always believed that he can win a Grand Slam title, but the important thing is not for me to believe that. I think he’s physically ready. He’s mentally ready. Tennis-wise, he’s much more mature right now and for sure if everything is coordinated at the right time and the right moment, why not? Why not? Two more matches and that’s it.”
Apostolos: “He’s a good collector of experiences”
In the two years since that Nadal defeat, Tsitsipas has matured, physically and mentally. He has always been capable of huge highs, but through the work donetogether with Patrick Mouratoglou, Kerei Abakar and Apostolos and Frédéric Lefebvre, Tsitsipas has become more consistent at the top level.
“He’s 22 now, at that time he was 20,” Apostolos said. “These two years has a lot of dynamic (change). First of all, because his body is growing. He’s a man. He’s gained the biggest amount of his strength. And also he’s getting more mature. All this experience he (has been) collecting… especially (playing) against the top guys – he’s really lucky that these guys (The Big Three) are still active and they’re playing well – he is a good collector, if I can call it like that. And he’s using this experience. He lost, he beat them. And I think he was trying to inspire himself, to learn from them. That was really important.
“The second part is that his team, the Mouratoglou Team and me, next to him, you know, we all working in the same direction. The last couple of years, we try to find this coordination that is really very important, to give him the best (direction). I think we are doing well right now. Sometimes when you have a big team… it’s not easy. But we found the formula. That’s great. Patrick is observing all these things and he’s really giving his wisdom and his knowledge, and it’s really great, it works well. And Stefanos is part of all this.”
A comeback for the ages!
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) February 17, 2021
Kerei Abakar: “He knows he’s a contender for the title”
At last year’s US Open, Tsitsipas experienced another painful defeat, this time to Borna Coric, a match in which he had six match points but could not finish it off. That defeat hurt badly, but he bounced back well to push Novak Djokovic to five sets at Roland-Garros the following month. Every big match he plays builds character and Kerei Abakar, a coach at the Mouratoglou academy and key part of Team Stefanos, believes Tsitsipas is mentally stronger now than before.
“I don’t know if the match against Coric is a turning point but Stef is a very proud and demanding person,” Abakar told Tennis Majors. “Every defeat touches him deeply and that’s why he’s so strong. He questions himself and he doesn’t want it to happen again. He’s already beaten the Big 3, he knows he can beat them. So it’s mental, you have to be stronger in the important moments. He believes in it much more than before, he doesn’t put himself below them. He says to himself, ‘It’s my turn’.
“When he beat Federer at the Australian Open (in 2019), I don’t think he thought he was part of the elite. I think he’s telling himself that now. He knows he’s a contender for the title and he’s taking on that role.”
Physically, he is a changed man. Always a good athlete, he now knows he can last five sets without dropping his level, as he showed against Nadal. Fred Lefebvre, his fitness coach, describes a young man who weighed just 77 kilos when they began working together in April 2017.
“We had to do a lot of strengthening,” he said. “There was also a lot to work on movement; he wasn’t as well anchored, balanced, powerful, or strong as he is today. He has a slender build so we tried to strengthen all the deep muscles and then we did some postural work. The goal was mainly to allow him to play matches and training without getting injured, because he plays a lot. We never had a single physical problem that led him to give up.
“The goal is not to gain weight and strength. He should not lose quality of movement. You can progress in strength without gaining mass, I want to preserve its speed and explosiveness. I’ve never made him lift weights. He has a good ability to recover, he’s 22 years old, it will be harder at 32 but he has superb muscle quality. He’s playing 4 hours, 5 minutes in the quarter-finals. I pick him up the next morning, he doesn’t have a micro-curvature anywhere. He owes it to his training, not to his natural qualities.
Four years on, Tsitsipas is a supreme athlete, someone who can match the very best and recover quickly to do it again.
The Stefanos of the beginning and the one of today, they are two different people. Stefanos is made for competition. In training, he was not the same. That changed because he knows it works. I didn’t have to convince him too much because it worked quickly. His progression in the rankings was initially very much linked to his physique: 210th, 91st, 15th in the world at the end of each year. But that’s changing. We did a superb pre-season (a month in Dubai), he put himself out there, he gave 100 percent.”
Much has been made of the fact that Tsitsipas and Medvedev are not friends, but Apostolos says there is no issue between the two, and in fact the parents of the two players are good friends, regularly spending Christmas and New Year together. Though they have had their issues on court, notably a few years ago in Miami, they are not the enemies some people would like to make out. Apostolos said their semi-final match will be about tennis and nothing else.
“It will be tough, of course,” he said. “They’ve both played a couple of finals and semi-finals in the Grand Slams and they’ve both won big titles like the Tour Finals. It’s going to be mental for sure. But they know, they know already what they can expect. I’m 100 percent sure they know very well and they know how to prepare themselves.”