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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Thursday February 18, 2021

 
Stefanos Tsitsipas

With his win over Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open, Stefanos Tsitsipas has taken another bold step in the right direction.

“This feels like trouble,” said commentator Mark Petchey as Rafael Nadal claimed the first point of the eleventh game of the third set against Stefanos Tsitsipas on Wednesday night in Melbourne.

0-15.

Tennis Express

Moments later the Greek, after trading whipsmart blows with the great Spaniard (and after prolonging the point with a ridiculously athletic running half-volley), sauntered in for a volley. His golden locks trailing him, puffed up in the wind, Tsitsipas, utterly clear in purpose, poked Nadal’s backhand attempt cleanly into the open court.

It was the perfect point, played almost unconsciously. 15-all, and what could have been a disastrous situation, was suddenly manageable for the Greek.

When reflecting on Tsitsipas’ 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4) 6-4, 7-5 victory over Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinals, many will quickly point to Nadal’s botched overheads (did those really happen?) in the third-set tiebreaker. Rightfully so.

But Tsitsipas might not have even reached that stage of the match had it not been for what he would later refer to as a state of “Nirvana” that guided him through the third set, into the tiebreaker and, eventually, all the way to the finish line.

“The thing is that I wasn't really thinking about a lot of things,” Tsitsipas told reporters after his second career victory over Nadal, and first on a hard court. “Nothing was going through my head. I was so much—how would I describe myself? Nirvana. Just, like, there. Playing, not thinking.”

If you go back and watch the final three sets of the contest, and specifically the aforementioned point at 5-5, 0-15 in the third set, you’ll have trouble disagreeing. Here was the Greek, not just in full flight physically, but so lucid mentally that he was actually able to outshine one of the most mentally tough players in the history of our sport in that department.

Such clarity is typically the domain of the sports’ dominant forces, not their aspiring usurpers.

“I was thinking a little bit, but I was mainly focused on each single serve, each single shot,” he would later say. “I think at the very [beginning of the] third set I changed few things. I changed my patterns. I maybe took a little bit more time. I think that helped. I wanted to stay in the court a bit longer.”


We ask a lot of tennis’ generation next, given the challenge that they collectively face. They are all living in the shadows of the legendary Big Three of tennis, and they will continue to do so for all eternity. Furthermore, they’ve all taken their lumps, repeatedly, and we’ve grown impatient with their development.

But on Wednesday night we learned something about Stefanos Tsitsipas that should have been obvious all along: He’s on trend. The Greek has been growing his game in pretty much every department ever since he broke out in 2019 and stunned Roger Federer at the Australian Open. But experience needs to accumulate, and in Tsitsipas’ case, pain needed to come before pleasure. The Greek had to be famously gutted at Roland Garros in 2019 by Stan Wawrinka in an epic ecounter, a classic opportunity lost. The Gods of tennis just wanted it that way…

In 2020, the sour broth of losing had to be tasted again. Tsitsipas blew six match points against Borna Coric and the wait for the Grand Slam follow-through was once again put on hold. It was pure horror for Tsitsipas, and many believed he’d need a year if not more to fully recover from it.

Ah, but the special ones—they’re special. The special ones take what would kill others and use it for motivation. We believe that they are off licking their wounds and losing faith when they are actually plotting the next uptick in the trend.

This is precisely what we saw from Stefanos Tsitsipas on Wednesday in Melbourne. Rather than wilt under the pressure of a two sets to love deficit against a 20-time Grand Slam champion who also happens to be a longtime nemesis, he went deep inside himself to find a better way to deal with the challenge.

Tsitsipas tapped a Zen-like sense of calm, didn’t waste any emotional energy on things he couldn’t control, and proceeded, untethered, to play his most devastating tennis when it mattered most against Nadal.

He hit 36 winners against 18 unforced errors in the final three sets against the legend. He lost nine first-serve points across those three sets, with his back against the wall through all of them, against one of the greatest returners in history. Most impressively, when Tsitsipas finally drew even, and finally did have something to lose in this contest, he played even better.

Tsitsipas hit 18 winners against 8 unforced errors in the final set, winning 24 of 29 first serve points and five of five points at the net. Any charity that Nadal was willing to give, he was ready to take, as he broke for 6-5 and then battled through tense moments to finish off the great champion in five.

How did the Greek find a way to unlock his game in such a manner?

“I'm not even sure,” he said. “I'm trying to analyze it myself, but I'm very proud the attitude that I showed. I think honestly I wasn't expecting too much, and I wasn't expecting too less, and that led to this serenity that you saw on the court.”

Nadal has done to others what Tsitsipas did to him last night on countless occasions. The Spaniard’s faith and ability to create an aura of invincibility have left his opponents discombobulated ever since he became a dominant force in the sport 15 years ago.

On Wednesday it was Tsitsipas’ invincible aura that held sway on Rod Laver Arena. And on this night it was the cracks in Nadal’s armor that surfaced—and grew.

It’s yet another step in the progress of a player who appears to be closer to his ultimate goal than ever before. There is no straight line to Grand Slam glory in the era of the Big Three. But Stefanos Tsitsipas’ trend is firmly intact, and after last night’s performance, it’s clearer than ever that he’s going to get there in time.

 

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