Will Stefanos Tsitsipas have a better career than Juan Martin del Potro? On paper — phrased differently, “in the realm of theory” — I would say he is likely to.
However, Delpo’s career didn’t become what it could have become not because the big guy from Argentina lacked tennis acumen. Poor Delpo has not won more majors or Masters titles because of a body which has repeatedly betrayed him. It has been sad to see.
No one knows what will happen in sports. A career could be extremely promising and then run into a severe injury. David Goffin’s collection of injuries thwarted what might have become a higher climb on the ATP Tour. Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic have also been dogged by injuries. Raonic in particular suffered an injury when leading Andy Murray, two sets to one, in an Australian Open semifinal (in 2016).
Something could happen. We hope it won’t, but let’s apply the simple disclaimer, much like a label on a food product: Nothing is guaranteed.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s put some cards on the table here: If he doesn’t get injured and enjoys several uninterrupted years of good health, Stefanos Tsitsipas could have the career Delpo might have had if the Tower of Tandil had not run into repeated physical problems.
I use Saturday’s win by Tsitsipas over Rafael Nadal to make my basic point.
Remember del Potro in 2009 against Roger Federer? Delpo was crushed by Fed at the Australian Open, 3, 0 and 0. That’s 18-3 if you’re counting all the games played. Delpo seemed so distant from Federer that it was going to take a few years to catch up.
Instead, Delpo showed what a quick study he was. He took Federer to five sets on clay at Roland Garros, leading two sets to one. He then climbed past Federer in the U.S. Open final that year, trailing two sets to one but winning in five, and having been down 5-4, 30-0, in the second set on Federer’s serve before playing four elite points to break back, swipe that set, stay in the match, and ultimately prevail.
Compare that progression to Tsitsipas against Nadal in 2019, 10 years later.
One can see the similarities.
Tsitsipas didn’t just get obliterated by Nadal in Australia; he was memorably confused and at a loss for words. He genuinely could not understand how he was outclassed by such a large margin. This seemed like a massive hill for Tsitsipas to climb, and yet, in this reunion on clay a few months later, Tsitsipas significantly closed the gap with Nadal… and won.
It’s not so much that Tsitsipas played better, or that he went to the net when it was smart to do so, or that he stood tough against a partisan Madrid crowd, though all of those realities are worth noting. The biggest takeaway from that win is that Tsitsipas played like a man who didn’t carry the baggage of Melbourne with him to Madrid. This was a clean mental reset and an eager performance from someone intent on writing a different story.
We see it so many times: Players go up against a Big 3 opponent and lose the match before they even take the court. They are intimidated, or stubborn enough to not change tactics, or unable to trust their skills and apply them in full.
Tsitsipas in 2019, like Delpo in 2009, has taken the road less traveled, the path marked by uncommon maturity for a very young player. This innergame acumen — more than the shots or the tactics — is what gives Tsitsipas such a bright future…
assuming he does not get injured, unlike poor Delpo.