If you love easy, convenient narratives, don’t write about Frances Tiafoe and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The tennis-loving world — anyone who cares about the sport on a global level at the greatest height of competition — either saw or heard about one of the more striking press conferences in recent tennis memory. Stefanos Tsitsipas struggled to process his wipeout loss at the hands of Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open semifinals.
It was fascinating to see a young athlete so utterly ambushed by what had just happened. Athletes might be happy or mad or disappointed, but Tsitsipas seemed to be in a different solar system: He seemed to be existentially rattled.
Tsitsipas seemed to question the meaning of everything he had done — not so much in his words (though that was part of the emotional drama unfolding in Melbourne), but more in his body language and the look in his eyes. It was as though he couldn’t really process or understand, on a deeper and more cosmic level, what Nadal had just done to him. He fumbled for words and found some memorable phrasings which we will revisit in the course of the coming decade of men’s tennis. We will look back on this press conference as a moment which either formed a champion, or led to a career filled with doubts. Time will provide our answer.
Contrast that press conference with the one given by Frances Tiafoe after his loss to Nadal two days earlier in Melbourne. Tsitsipas got crushed by Rafa in the semifinals of the Australian Open, while Tiafoe was trounced in the quarterfinals. Tiafoe very easily digested and processed the fact that Nadal was miles better. When referring to Nadal’s ability to set up his lefty forehand, Tiafoe knew was cooked.
“I knew if he got hold of a forehand,” Tiafoe said of Nadal, “it was going to be barbecued chicken.”
(Any #ONIONS with that chicken? I digress…)
Tiafoe digested that barbecued chicken quite easily. Tsitsipas found his loss to Rafa in Australia to be impossible to digest. The two men stood at polar opposite ends of a spectrum of emotional and cognitive responses.
One knew right away that he was toast. One couldn’t come to grips with how badly he had been toasted.
You might think, then, that these two players would play their next few tournaments in different ways. More precisely, you might have felt — logically, I might add — that Tsitsipas would struggle, given the cosmic shock he felt in Melbourne. That’s exactly what he has done in February, with quick exits in tournaments.
Here is the (possible) surprise, though: Tiafoe hasn’t been any better — not at all.
Tiafoe lost his first match at the New York Open last week, and Tuesday night in Delray Beach, Florida, Dan Evans took him out in three sets.
This isn’t a crisis for Tiafoe, much as Tsitsipas also isn’t immersed in any sort of emergency. Both players are learning how to carry themselves on tour. Coming off deep runs at a major tournament, they will be targets on tour. The fact that both of them have been punched in the teeth over the past few weeks is not terrifically surprising.
I am merely pointing out that based on their responses to blowout losses against Rafael Nadal, it was easy to think they would carve out different paths in February. Yet, their paths have been fundamentally the same.
Easy narratives don’t apply to these two careers — not at the moment, at any rate.