The heat at the U.S. Open isn’t supposed to last — not at this level, and not at the level players have had to endure on Tuesday and Wednesday at the USTA National Tennis Center. Yet, it takes only one ruthlessly hot and humid day to give a player problems. Novak Djokovic nearly fell behind two sets to one on Tuesday mostly because of the heat. Wednesday, Stefanos Tsitsipas had to confront something more than Daniil Medvedev; he had to deal with the brutal conditions on court.
Tsitsipas came to New York full of hope, and rightly so. The tennis community saw his run through the Toronto bracket to the final. Tennis observers watched him win three straight three-set matches against top-10 players. Tsitsipas lost to Sascha Zverev in Washington but showed that he could learn quickly by gaining revenge a week later in Canada. Tsitsipas showed staying power, resilience, maturity, and a measure of fitness.
Yet, that was best-of-three tennis, and as budding rival Zverev could tell Tsitsipas, best-of-five is a harder beast to wrestle to the ground, especially — as Roger Federer has alluded to — when Masters 1000 finals are no longer five sets. Younger players on tour, who had no exposure to five-set Masters finals at any point in their careers, face more of a challenge adjusting to the expanded-set format. It is a different mental test, and when extreme heat is added to the mix, that is something a young player can’t immediately be expected to grasp. It is likely to take time.
Beyond the heat and the best-of-five format, Tsitsipas also faced a very delicate emotional challenge on Wednesday: He has had some friction, to put the matter politely, in past meetings with Medvedev. The Russian said after this match that the parents of the two players are friends, but memories of tension on the court aren’t easily expunged. Moreover, any elements of antagonism Tsitsipas might have carried to the court were mixed with the adrenaline provided by a vocal and supportive Greek crowd. Tsitsipas needed to walk a tightrope between being too high and too low, too eager and too passive, too emotional and too restrained. It usually takes awhile for young players to handle this unique alchemy of converging circumstances and competing emotions. When these challenges are confronted in intense heat, it is that much easier for the brain to not make good decisions.
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, a place where one can go consecutive months without a single day under 100 degrees. One can go 10 or 15 straight days with a temperature at 108 or higher. The heat can be withering if one has to do work — or errands, or other essential activities — outside for any prolonged period of time. I know that heat often reduces clarity and leads to poorer decisions. Intense heat can lead to more emotional volatility — it doesn’t guarantee it, but I have seen it often enough to know that it can happen.
Try playing tennis in scorching heat and considerable humidity, over three hours, at a professional level. You can master it, but it usually involves some rough experiences first.
Consider this Wednesday Tsitsipas’s baptism by fire, which metaphorically serves as a cold splash of water which might cool down any expectations of a meteoric rise and ensure (helpfully) a more modest set of expectations for the next 12 to 18 months of his career. After the feel-good joyride and undeniably positive moments forged in Washington and Toronto, this match represented a leveling moment in a number of respects:
This time, an opponent was able to finish off a struggling version of Tsitsipas, unlike Zverev in the Toronto quarters.
This time, Tsitsipas won a set which could have suggested a turnaround — he lost first sets to Zverev and Kevin Anderson in Toronto before rebounding — only to then falter.
Was it the heat which caused Tsitsipas to forget that he could have taken a 10-minute break after the third set, all while Medvedev took advantage of that break and played much better in the fourth set? Tsitsipas said he plainly forgot, which — given the unique nature of the situation — is certainly possible. Nevertheless, that act of forgetting represented just one of many ways in which Tsitsipas didn’t handle the full occasion in all its dimensions and complications.
It is hardly unpardonable that Tsitsipas, just two weeks removed from his 20th birthday, did not handle this situation. If anything, this is exactly the kind of cold water Stefanos needs to absorb how much he still needs to learn. Tsitsipas didn’t need to lose early at the U.S. Open, but at some point in his early-stage development, he WAS going to need to have a moment such as this at a major tournament. The process Zverev has endured — and is still in the midst of figuring out — can now take on deeper textures and meanings for Tsitsipas.
It is noticeable that Tsitsipas often has a very philosophical statement in mind when he tweets, sometimes following an important victory. Tsitsipas is perceived by some as owning a “zen” outlook which stands in contrast to Zverev’s more fiery outbursts.
I enjoy watching both players, and more than that, I think 21- or 20-year-old athletes deserve room and space in which to grow. These are not fully-formed individuals. They are learning about themselves and are discovering how to comport themselves as public figures. This is not learned overnight, much as learning how to win five-set matches in brutal heat is also not learned right away. I do not view young players’ tweets or mannerisms negatively. They can do what they want; it doesn’t bother me. I get much more upset with older players (see “Fognini, Fabio”) who can’t modulate their behavior even though they should know better.
Yet, while having absolutely no problem with Tsitsipas’s zen image (whether you feel it is purposefully cultivated or not), this much can be said: Zen tennis is not an image so much as a reality, at least when thrown into the fire pit of circumstances a young Greek tennis star faced on Wednesday. Tsitsipas learned a lot about what it truly means to be calm and collected in an important moment.
This could become the educational occasion which enables his career to evolve at the major tournaments. This could be the splash of cold water on a hot day which Tsitsipas needed in a larger and more expansive sense.