When saying that a player “sent a message,” the immediate reflex action for a reader is often an eye roll.
“Wait, this was not some resounding statement. Wait, this was not an earth-shaking moment. Wait, this was not a decisive moment in tennis history.”
I agree that the notion (and phrasing) of “sending a message” is overused and CAN create the wrong impression, usually a verdict much more dramatic than events warrant.
Therefore, having said — in the title of this piece — that Stefanos Tsitsipas sent a message with his three-set win over Novak Djokovic on Thursday in Toronto, I will be up front: This was not a huge message. It was not an extremely loud message. It was not a message which should make the rest of the ATP Tour quake in its boots. No, it wasn’t THAT big a deal. You won’t get a forceful, sweeping statement from me.
However: This WAS a message. Though not supremely significant, it DID contain a measure of value. How much? Only time will tell… but it IS valuable that Tsitsipas won this match instead of losing it, for reasons which aren’t that hard to identify.
What have we seen this week in Toronto? Rain, interruptions of play, hardcourts playing very slowly, and Canadians struggling, among other things. One of the more prominent features of this week has been the agony endured by young ATP up-and-comers who have bright futures but must first taste the bitter herbs of defeat in matches they easily could have won.
It is a rite of passage for young tennis players (Rafael Nadal being the notable exception which proves the rule), and for young athletes in general: You have to lose a few times in painful ways before you learn how to win consistently. Players have to walk through the fire of holding a late-stage lead — and directly encounter the churning nerves, the inner voices in the head, the growling stomach, the jelly-legged feeling of paralysis — and understand how their bodies and minds react to it before they can master the mind-body connection which is needed to win at a high level. Enduring the pain of failure in late-stage situations gives the young athlete an understanding of what happens when nerves take over. Disciplining the mind to be more quiet, and practicing technique so that strokes don’t break down under pressure, fortify the young tennis player with the tools needed to overcome late-stage nerves.
Tactics can help as well, but handling pressure is more a matter of handling the inner self than anything else. Balancing confidence, quietude, clarity and concentration gives tennis players a roadmap through the thicket of a situation in which they are close to victory, but not quite there.
Very simply, Frances Tiafoe (on Thursday against Grigor Dimitrov) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (on Wednesday night against Daniil Medvedev, another young player with a penchant for losing leads) had matches in their grasp, just a few points away, but let those opportunities slip through their fingers. They often held the upper hand on the scoreboard, but when it came time to drive home the dagger, neither player displayed his best form. None of this should be taken as an indicator of how well they will perform when they enter their prime years, at age 23, 24, 25, 26. Right now, collecting information and using every loss as a learning experience can — and should — benefit a young tennis player. This is the life of a touring professional. If a coach and a support team are good, they will emphasize the necessity and centrality of learning more than succeeding at this stage of a career. “Success” is not found in results so much as in showing an ability to apply lessons of various kinds. Tiafoe and Auger-Aliassime did not endure setbacks in their Toronto losses. They encountered necessary events in their careers. Their task is to learn from them.
What, then, should be said about Tsitsipas’s win over Djokovic? Among other things, it revealed how quickly the Greek 19-year-old learned from a top player a few days ago.
On Saturday in Washington, Tsitsipas was moody and uncomfortable — as 19-year-olds tend to be in various contexts, not just on a tennis court — against Alexander Zverev, a 21-year-old who was the elder statesmen of the four semifinalists at the Citi Open. Zverev, at 19, took one hard knock after another, and at ages 20 and 21, his game steadily evolved. He has learned, and is still learning, how to win at the highest levels of competition. Step by step, he is piecing together the puzzle of how to be great.
In that Washington semifinal on Saturday, Tsitsipas made all sorts of poor decisions, during and between points. He was too hard on himself at times, and he didn’t stay in rallies as well as he could have. He became impatient and clearly conveyed to Zverev that he was not quite ready to battle over every inch of the court, not quite ready to win the match by using every possible resource.
It would have been bad for Tsitsipas if substandard habits somehow didn’t matter, and if he won that match while taking shortcuts. Losing that match impressed upon him the need to clean up his habits and polish his responses.
That improved ability to respond to pressure was in evidence against Djokovic, less than a full week after his Saturday struggle bus against Zverev.
That, very simply, is the message Tsitsipas sent on Thursday in Canada: I can learn. I can learn QUICKLY. This doesn’t mean Tsitsipas has it made. It doesn’t mean Tsitsipas will be a big-league star (though the arrow is certainly pointing up, up, up for him). This was not, for instance, the authoritative takedown of Djokovic authored by Zverev in Rome last year. This match didn’t have the same feel, especially since Djokovic had one of the worst performances as a returner in his career. It is extremely rare for Djokovic to not break serve at least once in a best-of-three-set match which goes three sets. Per tennis statistician Donald Tendulkar, this is only the fifth such instance in which this has happened. Djokovic was poor… but Tsitsipas nevertheless steadied himself under pressure. He nevertheless hit his forehand with authority in moments when he couldn’t find his first serve and had to win second-serve points.
No, this wasn’t a resounding message, but it certainly was an important one: Stefanos Tsitsipas can turn rough lessons (last Saturday in Washington) into transformations (against Djokovic on Thursday in Canada). He can rise in moments when his peers, FAA and Tiafoe, aren’t similarly able to elevate. Tsitsipas could have faltered after he let the second set get away from him. Instead, he regrouped, and in the process gathered the kind of win which will reinforce the value of doing things the right way.
Tsitsipas didn’t beat the best version of Novak Djokovic, or even an above-average iteration of the 13-time major champion. For that reason, one shouldn’t get TOO excited about this result.
That said, one should certainly be more excited about Tsitsipas than before this Toronto tournament began.
Improvement is and has been a steady feature of a 19-year-old’s journey through an ATP tennis season. When that is happening, optimism — though laced with a certain degree of caution — is impossible to avoid or ignore.