Life comes at you fast.
The familiar saying applies to everything under the sun — or English gray skies, as it were — but it applies to the 2021 Wimbledon tournament in an especially relevant way.
With only two weeks between Roland Garros and The Championships this year (a reality the top pros had to deal with through 2014 — how did they manage this task so regularly?), it was always going to be a heavy lift for the players who went deep in Paris.
Barbora Krejcikova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will get their turns in the Wimbledon spotlight soon enough, but on Day 1 at SW19, Stefanos Tsitsipas stepped into the fire, only two weeks after making his first-ever major final at the French Open.
Getting over the sting of the 5-set loss to Novak Djokovic was part of Stef’s challenge, but the main challenge was to mentally recover from two weeks of physically demanding and emotionally exhausting tennis. Having had a third week of rest between Paris and suburban London would have really helped the Greek, but life didn’t provide that in 2021.
What do we keep saying about young tennis players? It’s hard to act like you’ve been there before when, in fact, you HAVEN’T been there before.
This was the first time Stef had to play one major tournament two weeks after reaching his first final. It would have been hard enough to have a target on one’s back in other circumstances, but this very short turnaround from France to England, from clay to grass, was always going to be tough.
Life comes at you fast.
Let’s be sure to note that Frances Tiafoe, who dismissed Tsitsipas on Monday on No. 1 Court at the All-England Club, played a mentally strong match. Tiafoe wasn’t spectacular — he made a number of mistakes on relatively easy shots — but he regrouped every time he faltered. He lived on the ledge a few times but rescued himself. That had a lot to do with Tsitsipas’s problems.
Nevertheless, we certainly didn’t see the best of Stef. He approached this match poorly on a tactical level, hitting way too many backhand drives instead of a more patient game. Stef has very soft hands and a level of feel many of his peers lack. Because of this, grass shouldn’t be especially problematic for him.
No, his slice isn’t a world-class weapon, but it is an improved shot he OUGHT to trust more and work on cultivating to a greater degree. Stef has a heavy topspin forehand which is rewarded on clay, but he has the dexterity and creativity which can function well on grass, which involves a lower strike zone. Tsitsipas ought to be able to figure out grass faster than Dominic Thiem has, for example, but not this year. Not yet.
Stepping back and looking at this loss from a broader vantage point, it’s more important to emphasize the short turnaround and Tiafoe’s steely performance as the main reasons Tsitsipas lost. This result was less about grass specifically and more about the mental challenge of learning how to back up tournaments and make the Paris-to-SW19 transition, something the Big 3 have done (and in Djokovic’s case, are still doing) with conspicuous poise and professionalism.
Tsitsipas struggling right after making his first major final — and Thiem struggling after winning his first major title, and Zverev also continuing to struggle in big moments on the heels of his 2020 U.S. Open final — shows that while attaining one milestone often leads to bigger achievements down the line, the process of graduating to a higher level isn’t necessarily immediate. It might require 12, 18 or 24 months to ultimately bear greater fruit.
Let that be the main takeaway from this match: Turning the page after successes, not just failures, defines the level of greatness a professional athlete attains in a career. Everything has to be dealt with and processed. Handling prosperity, not just problems, is necessary for athletes to maximize their talents and resources.
Yet, while the #INNERGAME is paramount for a brilliant young talent who has better days ahead, we shouldn’t completely dismiss or ignore the reality that whereas Stef has established a comfort zone on both hardcourts and especially clay, that comfort zone isn’t there on grass.
Life comes at you fast. Slick Day 1 Wimbledon lawns — and 2-week transitions between majors, and the prominence newly conferred on a young player by a first major final — will all convey that lesson.
Stefanos Tsitsipas has to absorb what it all means. We will see how he responds in the next 12 months, especially at Wimbledon in 2022.