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Tsitsipas clears out some space in his head

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports

When Stefanos Tsitsipas looked at the autumnal portion of his 2019 season, he didn’t have “beat Felix Auger-Aliassime” on his checklist, if only because tennis is a sport in which one can’t guarantee meeting certain players at certain times.

However, when Felix appeared in Tsitsipas’s path at the Shanghai Masters, Wednesday’s match in China became a huge priority for Tsitsipas, for all the obvious reasons.

This wasn’t about winning a Masters title or making a push for a major championship. There aren’t a lot of things Tsitsipas can do in the next month to change the way he is perceived. Winning the ATP Finals was one of the few statements he could make which could potentially change the conversation.

Yet, ask Alexander Zverev how much it meant to win the 2018 ATP Finals. That did not carry over to 2019, so even then, Tsitsipas knew — along with the rest of us — that the remainder of this season contained few especially important moments.

However, beating Felix Auger-Aliassime — if he ever got the chance — rated at the top of the list.

Tsitsipas got that chance on Wednesday, and he made the most of it, winning two tiebreakers which both turned on the seventh and eight points, both won by the Greek for a 5-3 lead he subsequently preserved.

Yes, we all know that Felix isn’t in a patch of good form, and that Tsitsipas’s revival last week in Beijing put him in good position to win this match. We can all see that and acknowledge that. To be sure, this result is not a negative commentary on Felix.

He will be back. He will beat Stef many times in the future.

This mattered a lot more for Tsitsipas than FAA. This was a time for Tsitsipas to clear out some space in his head, to no longer let Felix live there rent-free.

It is a point of speculation, but CONVINCING speculation: Many people felt, and still feel, that Tsitsipas’s 2019 season declined when he lost to Auger-Aliassime at Queen’s Club. It could be pure coincidence and it could be direct causation, but it does remain that the result did mark a downward turning point for Tsitsipas.

The matchup and its contours were not favorable to Tsitsipas, so much so that even though the Greek reached the Australian Open semifinals and played Stan Wawrinka in one of the 2019 matches of the year at Roland Garros, he had no answers for his younger Canadian opponent.

As 2019 wound down in China, Tsitsipas had a chance to not only settle a score, but evict Felix from his cranial region. The win doesn’t mean Tsitsipas will have the better career, as though a magic spell has been lifted. It doesn’t mean Tsitsipas is bound to have a great 2020 season.

It simply means this is a source of doubt and questioning Tsitsipas no longer has to consider. This is the creation of head space, the clarity every athlete needs to be at his or her best.

Tsitsipas needs to clear his head in a similar way against Daniil Medvedev… but like Felix, one can’t guarantee the matchup will recur at any point. Tsitsipas simply has to be ready, as he was against Auger-Aliassime.

The more Tsitsipas can clear his head and free himself from the chains of doubt, the better his chances of excelling on tour.

This was a big win — not for what it guarantees, but for what it makes possible in the future.

Evictions are sad moments for home dwellers, but great for tennis players.

Next time, Felix will actually have to pay rent if he wants to beat Tsitsipas.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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