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“These are the moments that I’ve been working for” – Tsitsipas will play for first major title and the No 1 ranking on Sunday in Melbourne
Stefanos Tsitsipas powered past Karen Khachanov in four sets and will play for his first major and the No 1 ranking on Sunday in Melbourne.
As a child, Stefanos Tsitsipas remembers watching his idol Marcos Baghdatis make history for Cyprus by reaching the Australian Open final in 2006. Nearly two decades later, 24-year-old Tsitsipas has put himself in the exact same position, toppling Russia’s Karen Khachanov, 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 on Friday in Rod Laver Arena to book his second major final appearance, and his first in Melbourne Park.
“I first watched Marcos do it here a couple of years ago,” Tsitsipas told the crowd. “And I dreamed as a kid to maybe one day get to play on this court and compete against the best players in the world. I’m happy with the fight that I put out there today. It brings back memories from watching it as a kid on TV and cheering him on.”
With Baghdatis in the building watching, Tsitsipas delivered a breathtaking performance, playing on the front foot from start to finish, and responding with courage when Khachanov added drama to the affair by saving a pair of match points in the third-set tiebreaker before sending the match to four sets.
A battle in the third, excellence in the fourth
Tsitsipas could have easily hung his head after squandering a break lead in the third and then failing to convert his opportunities in the tiebreak, but he never wavered. He hit the throttle and delivered a scorching fourth set to reach the final and set up a match with either nine-time champion Novak Djokovic or American Tommy Paul with the No 1 ranking on the line.
What was on his mind after dropping the third set to the dangerous Khachanov?
“I thought of how hard I’ve worked to get to this position and [the fact that] it takes a little bit more,” Tsitsipas said. “I wasn’t able to deliver that in the third set and I was extremely close to getting it. But it’s one of these moments that if you stick around and if you dedicate yourself even more and if you concentrate on these important moments even more, it pays off quite well.”
It paid off perfectly, and now Tsitsipas, playing the tennis of his life, is on the cusp of achieving tennis’ impossible dream: winning the tournament that has been owned by Novak Djokovic since he first raised the trophy in Melbourne in 2008. Djokovic, who faces Paul in Friday’s second semi-final, has never lost a semi-final or final at the Australian Open, and he’s been playing flawless tennis since the second week kicked off.
A Grand Slam title and the No 1 Ranking – all to play for
If it is Djokovic that he faces in the final, the eventual winner of that clash would emerge with the trophy as well as the ATP’s No 1 ranking.
It’s has a nice ring to it, says Tsitsipas.
“I like that number,” he said with a smile. “It’s all about you, it singular. It’s one.”
Tsitsipas has lost nine straight to Djokovic, since taking two of their first three meetings, but he’s eager for whatever challenge – be it his former junior rival Paul, or Djokovic – comes his way this weekend.
And he’s thankful for the Greek contingent that is fervently supporting him in his quest. Greek flags were waving all over Rod Laver Arena as Tsitsipas brought them to their feet time and time again with his magnificent forehand. The No 3 seed hit 24 winners off that wing and forced another 22 errors from his opponent. He has hit over 100 forehand winners in the tournament and is playing some of the most assertive tennis of his career.
Tsitsipas finished the day with 66 winners to 34 unforced errors, and his firepower and athleticism kept Khachanov on the back foot for most of the match. It could have easily been a straight-sets victory for the Greek, were it not for the relentless fight of Khachanov, who refused to quit with his back against the wall.
But in the end it was four-set victory that was nearly as convincing as one procured in straights. Perhaps the extra tennis will only steel Tsitsipas for the fight that will be waiting for him on Sunday. A little pressure in a Grand Slam is never a bad thing, after all.
There will be more pressure on Sunday – as they say in tennis circles: it’s a privilege.
“These are the moments that I have been working hard for,” Tsitsipas said. “To be able to play in finals like this, finals that have a bigger meaning than just the final. It’s a Grand Slam final. I’m fighting for the number one spot. It’s a childhood dream to be capturing that number one spot one day – I’m close.
“I’m happy that this opportunity comes here in Australia and not somewhere else, because this is a place of significance. So let’s do it guys. Let’s go!”
Notes, and Numbers
Despite reaching back-to-back Slam semi-finals, Khachanov has now lost his last 23 matches against top-10 opposition, and he falls to 2-23 lifetime against the top-5.
Tsitsipas becomes the *10th active male player to reach multiple Grand Slam finals – after Djokovic
(who is bidding to reach his 33rd Grand Slam final here), Rafael Nadal (30 Grand Slam final appearances), Murray (11), Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka (4), Marin Cilic (3), and Juan Martin del Potro and Casper Ruud (both 2). *ATP currently lists Del Potro as active
Tsitsipas is the youngest man to reach the Australian Open final since Novak Djokovic in 2011.