Stefanos Tsitsipas will play only one more tournament before turning 20 years old on August 12. For tennis players younger than 23 (the age when Novak Djokovic truly began to figure things out), it is often a premature act to pronounce that greatness will visit a particular player. For every Djokovic or Federer, there are hundreds of players who possess talent but don’t actualize that talent. It’s not that they don’t have the raw material; it is widely known and accepted on tour that the players can hit the ball at a high level. It’s the collection of finer details, polished habits, superior in-match choices, and big-moment responses which differentiate champions from pretenders.
If you were to ask various tennis pundits about Tsitsipas, most would probably be inclined at this early point in the Greek’s career to assign a high ceiling of potential to him. Why not? His breakthrough in Barcelona earlier this year has not been followed by a downturn. Tsitsipas isn’t doing spectacular things on court, but that should not be expected of 19-year-olds. Merely being solid — continuing to win multiple matches at tournaments — represents a significant feat for a player with Tsitsipas’s level of experience. A semifinal result at the Citi Open in Washington reaffirms a slow but steady upward trajectory for him. His career continues to point in the right direction.
It is a good time to be Stefanos Tsitsipas. A positive vibe — reinforced by positive tournaments — surrounds his tennis existence. That much is clear and can be widely agreed upon. Yet, for all the signs of encouragement, he has not had what I would refer to as “The Moment.”
When I speak of “The Moment,” I refer to a match or an accomplishment so great that a young player crosses the threshold from being “possibly a very good player” to “yep, this guy is going to win big when he gets to his prime years.” This is not to say or suggest that Tsitsipas WON’T have that kind of career, only that we haven’t yet encountered a moment which stamps the mark of excellence on a young player with particular authority.
The man staring at Tsitsipas on the other side of the net in Saturday’s first Washington semifinal has been graced by “The Moment.”
For me, “The Moment” came for Sascha Zverev when he calmly dissected Novak Djokovic in the 2017 Rome final. A young player who should have been nervous, should have felt the moment in the way young players usually do, was icy — in the best possible sense — and glacially calm, powering through Djokovic in a Masters final as though he was tending to Tuesday morning errands. The feat of beating Djokovic in straights — in a city where Djokovic has constantly played great tennis in big matches — was impressive enough. The WAY in which Zverev tended to his business was even more impressive. That was “The Moment” for me.
Others could cite the 2018 Madrid final against Dominic Thiem, or the 2017 Montreal final against Roger Federer, as “The Moment” for Zverev. You could take your pick of moments, but to be sure, Zverev forged feats on a tennis court before turning 21 (or at Madrid this year, one month after turning 21) which showed that despite his young age, he appears poised to succeed at the highest level.
Will that moment come for Tsitsipas? Yes, I think it soon will… but it still hasn’t arrived, and until then, that small sliver of caution should be applied to his career.
This is why his loss to Zverev on Saturday can help him a lot in the future.
I often refer to “good losses” in sports. I know that the point of competition is to win, but the notion of a “good loss” is based on the realization that a loss today can set the stage for greater victories or opportunities down the line. In tennis, the most common example of a “good loss” is a loss which enables a player to gain rest at a smaller-point tournament so that s/he can be more prepared for a higher-point tournament. While the Toronto Masters (the Rogers Cup) lies ahead for Tsitsipas, I would not view this result through that prism. Being able to defeat Zverev and play for a 500 title would be a big deal. Preparations for Toronto shouldn’t be viewed as that much more valuable for Tsitsipas.
However, this is still a good loss — just not in the conventional sense. Why would this be a good loss for Tsitsipas? The explanation is not that complicated.
Everyone who watched the match against Zverev could see that Tsitsipas — quite understandably — treated the moment with tremendous enthusiasm and the emotional intensity befitting the opponent across the net. What young athletes (in any sport) have to manage is the fine line between intense emotions and overheated emotions. Intensity is good, but not when it overflows and hijacks concentration. Tsitsipas swam through that chemical cocktail on Saturday, whacking himself in the head at a sitdown and constantly trying to pump himself up. His body language was the exact opposite of a poker face, always revealing to his opponent exactly what he was feeling.
Zverev has endured those moments in great abundance on tour. He can be ornery and agitated with the best of them, his racquet slams and descents into darkness becoming very familiar in his “black” period from September 2017 through early March of 2018, when virtually nothing went right for him. He revived his career with a run to the Miami final against John Isner, but even in that match, Zverev slammed his stick late in the match and lost. The predictable chorus (which I joined) cautioned that he still had to cross certain thresholds in terms of patience, discipline, and perseverance.
Zverev quite clearly answered those questions in Madrid, and then again at Roland Garros with his five-set comeback wins, plural, and his run to the quarterfinals. As is the case with most young athletes, Zverev had to go through the chaos of his own mind and ride the roller-coaster several times in order to gain more clarity and understanding.
Tsitsipas’s team can look at this loss on Saturday and properly identify it as a necessary step in Stefanos’s evolution as a tennis player.
In addition to the internal emotional upheavals which were part of Saturday’s match, Tsitsipas made a mistake he fortunately didn’t pay for. At 4-4 in the second set — part of a long service game for the Greek — he dove for a shot. He made a spectacular backhand volley and created a huge roar from the crowd, but as his coach will surely tell him after the match, you’re not supposed to dive on hardcourts — not unless it’s U.S. Open championship point or something very close to that. Tsitsipas has a multi-million-dollar right arm, an arm which might hit 8,000 aces and propel him to major championships. The second set of an ATP 500 semifinal, trailing by a set and on serve, is not a moment valuable enough to risk that million-dollar arm.
Thankfully, Tsitsipas did not appear to injure the arm. He got away with it. Managing emotions, managing a match, managing a career — Tsitsipas gained a lot of new information on how to carry forward on Saturday, without severely negative consequences.
That’s part of what made this a good loss, but the final detail worth emphasizing is that on some occasions, a young athlete will display bad habits or responses (as Tsitipas did with his head-whacks and the ill-chosen dive) and yet win a match. When a young athlete wins a match DESPITE showing some bad habits, those bad habits can become baked in and solidified. Because Tsitsipas lost, it is a lot more likely — not guaranteed, but much more probable — that Tsitsipas will realize he can’t continue to do what he did on Saturday.
This doesn’t mean these habits or actions (except the dive — that will be nipped in the bud immediately) — will evaporate and never be seen again. This is a gradual process, not a push-button computer program. However, Saturday — because it ended with a loss, not a win — has a much better chance of instilling better habits in Tsitsipas over the longer run of time.
That’s a good loss, and a good education, for a player whose ceiling is as high as his aspirations.