Matt Zemek

If you haven’t seen the 1984 film “The Natural,” you should. The detail I am about to share from the film is not too much of a spoiler, so don’t worry about losing a sense of the drama involved in the Robert Redford-Kim Basinger movie with the iconic musical theme and soundtrack. 

Very simply, there’s a moment in the movie when a legendary baseball hitter is challenged to a duel of skill by a largely unknown pitcher. When the duel begins, everyone’s eyes are on the hitter, and all expectations favor him in this miniature battle. The pitcher, an athlete nobody knows about, very quickly changes the conversation, such that a female admirer very consciously and conspicuously turns her head from one man to the other. It is one of many striking visuals in a memorable and stirring piece of cinematography.

This week in Barcelona at the ATP 500 tour stop, we don’t know if a soaring ATP clay career was launched. We don’t know if a Greek legend was born in Spain. We don’t know what the future holds, and for a 19-year-old, it’s way too soon to make guarantees or sweeping statements. (I prefer to consider career greatness once a player beats an iconic opponent to win a prestigious tournament, such as what Alexander Zverev did against Novak Djokovic in the 2017 Rome final.) Given that a Masters 1000 event occurred last week, the idea that Dominic Thiem might fall out of bed the wrong way in a 500 the following week isn’t preposterous.

By all means, raise all the cautionary notes you want. It’s quite reasonable to do so.

Yet… if the course of human events raises Stefanos Tsitsipas to a very lofty height, we will all have the pleasure and satisfaction of being able to say, “I knew when and where it all began.”

In the last week of April in 2018, in Barcelona.

Diego Schwartzman. Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Dominic Thiem, the crown jewel. Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s semifinals.

Tsitsipas hasn’t just made an ATP final and done something no Greek man had achieved since 1973. He beat a supremely formidable lineup of clay-court players to get there. He took the hard road… and made it look relatively easy, winning 10 of 10 sets. It wasn’t quite Rafa-like dominance, but he never did need a tiebreaker, and he needed more than 10 games to win only two of his 10 sets. He stood tall and stayed tall, establishing a level of comfort on clay which is impossible to ignore.

Cutting down Carreno Busta in Saturday’s semifinals showed an ability to not let down his guard after taking out Thiem in Friday’s quarterfinals. If you wanted to highlight the Carreno victory as the most impressive thing Tsitsipas has done during the week in Spain, you would have a reasonable case to make.

Yet, given how formidable Thiem is on clay, I find it more striking that a 19-year-old was able to thrash a 24-year-old member of the top eight in the ATP rankings. 

Thiem is no Rafa — no one is — but if anyone under age 25 has been seen as the successor to Nadal on clay, Thiem clearly occupies that position. He beat Djokovic a week ago in Monte Carlo and, despite coming back from injury, did not look like a physically hampered player. Putting too much stock in one Friday afternoon at an ATP 500 event is generally not recommended, but in terms of the global tennis community’s larger imagination, it is not hard to imagine a lot of observers beginning Friday’s match with their eyes focused on Thiem, a possible Austrian equivalent to Thomas Muster… and then, over the course of the match, slowly shifting their gazes to the other side of the court and the 19-year-old Greek who torched Thiem on red brick.

This event wasn’t a confirmation or an affirmation — those words are merited when players make the transition from “tantalizing” or “tease” to “tested and tough.” Stefanos Tsitsipas will spend the next few years trying to build on what he has done in Barcelona (regardless of what he does in Sunday’s final against Nadal). What happens in the coming months should not be seen as any sort of verdict on the Greek’s legitimacy. Young players who make breakthroughs then encounter pushback from the rest of the tour. It is always good to insert the reminder that one should not expect a linear, upward trajectory from young players after they first strike gold. Careers generally go through zigs and zags; the ability to ride out the bad patches is necessary to tennis evolution. Growing from setbacks rather than shrinking in the face of them reveals the maturity of a complete player; Tsitsipas is about to begin to travel that particular path.

If history is a guide, rocky times lie ahead for young Stefanos. Where he is at 21 and 22 will offer a better and bigger window into his true career prospects.

Nevertheless, after watching this week in Barcelona, we might arrive at the 2021 clay season and consciously recall the moment when Stefanos Tsitsipas turned our heads from an Austrian slugger to a Greek artist. We might recall a moment in time when ATP clay tennis found its new version of “The Natural.”


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