By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Novak Djokovic, understandably, is the man of the hour. He’s won his 19th Grand Slam title, narrowing the distance between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and him to just the one Slam, and in doing so, has become the only third male after Rod Laver and Roy Emerson to have completed the career Slam twice. But before Djokovic had attained all these milestones in the course of the four-hour-11-minute match, he set out to complete the most important task of the day – beating his opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the 2021 French Open.
This is why our story focuses on Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 22-year-old got several facets that go in constructing a best-of-five-setter correct. He bided his time at the start of the match getting through each of his service games while waiting for Djokovic’s level to plateau off and then elevated his level to win the first two sets thereby firmly controlling the direction of the match. In terms of his shot selection, Tsitsipas went for those without any hesitation, without letting himself get side-tracked by the aura of the player whom he was facing or by the magnitude of the match he was engaged on. To sum it up, Tsitsipas maximised his strengths and used his opponent’s strengths against him to go up on him on the scoreboard, twice over.
However, what Tsitsipas failed to realise that the same tactics he employed against his rival could be employed against him. This strategic one-upping had occurred not so long ago, in his semi-final in Paris against Alexander Zverev. Then, too, the world no. 5 had built a two-sets-to-love lead only for Zverev to vaporise it as he gained better traction in the third and fourth sets.
But where he was the player who altered the course of the match in the fifth set against Zverev, Tsitsipas found himself at the receiving end of a similar treatment at the hands of Djokovic who, having readjusted his game, didn’t slack off for the rest of the match.
In his post-match press conference, Tsitsipas acknowledged to getting bogged down, mid-match.
“(I) started playing really short. I felt like my rhythm was off. I really don’t know why. It was very strange considering that I started finding my rhythm, finding my shots, my movement on the court was perfect, and suddenly just felt cold and out of it. It was difficult to readjust. I felt like I kind of lost my game a little bit,” Tsitsipas said.
He, then, observed, “I really wish I could understand why things like this happened and evolved. But I was trying to figure it out during my game. It was difficult to come up with something. It’s very unfortunate; very sad in the same way because it was a good opportunity. I was playing good. I was feeling good. Yeah, I lost an opportunity to do something better today.”
Tsitsipas’ ruefulness about the chance he missed in the match doesn’t detract from the opportunity that’s still there for him. Of drawing from this experience and make the most of it in matches that are sure to unfold similarly. And there’s no better rival from whom to gain such an experience from than Djokovic himself.
From struggling to sustain his intensity across lengthy matches such as these at Majors, the world no. 1’s transformation into a rival who’s made it imperative that if his opponents want to take him out of a game, they have to be at their peak right up to the final point, has been inexplicable as it’s been awe-inspiring.
It’s also set the standards for youngsters, like Tsitsipas, to reach up to in terms of the effort and hard yards that need to be invested beyond the usual cursory nuances of tactical strategizing during a match.
To give credit to Tsitsipas though, he’s come ways in navigating this learning curve.
Back at the 2021 Australian Open, after Tsitsipas’ comeback upset over Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, I had observed that he’d found a way to out-best one of the “Big Three” players by replying to him in the same coin. The two contrasting outcomes between the two immediately-occurring Majors then encapsulate the timeline of the Greek’s maturing as a potential champion in these events.
This maturity has also seen Tsitsipas double down on his self-belief instead of getting caught in the maelstrom of self-doubts. To reiterate his own words, “Despite my loss today, I have faith in my game. With the same attitude, if I just… if I don’t downgrade myself, no reason that I don’t lift the trophy one day.”
The coming of that day for Stefanos Tsitsipas isn’t that hard to envision, then.