It is one of the simplest yet most important lessons of sports: With very few exceptions, you have to lose before you can win at the highest level. An athlete or team might forge various considerable achievements of note, but in pursuit of the biggest trophies and the greatest triumphs, one year’s defeat usually precedes the next year’s victory… if the next year even provides a supreme championship.
Such is the world inhabited by Stefanos Tsitsipas after an enormously successful Australian Open which nevertheless left him to wonder if he had what it took to win a major title.
After Rafael Nadal thrashed him in the semifinals, Tsitsipas tried to deal with the reality of being so comprehensively outplayed. He allowed himself and his thoughts to become extremely vulnerable in the heat of the moment, as shown in these two extraordinary quotes:
Best part of a pretty amazing presser is when Tsitsipas says: "It's not that I don't want it–I really want it badly, but I have to want it even more than I want it at the moment." https://t.co/5qmugrhAY4
— Chris Oddo (@TheFanChild) January 25, 2019
“I’m just trying to understand how Federer beat him [Nadal] so many times… I don’t want to lose to him 10 times.” – A completely shattered and devastated Tsitsipas’ press conference turned into a therapy session by the end.
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) January 24, 2019
Tsitsipas already shows signs of being an old soul — and I’m not referring to his zen quotes. He craves big moments, as shown in his win over Roger Federer in the fourth round. He wants to have those dances with pressure. He wants to feel the enormity of a grand stage.
Nadal, though, represented a completely different challenge, and — instructively — a bad, bad matchup for his one-handed backhand and suspect return of serve. Craving a moment means little when your weaknesses can be savagely exploited by an opponent who knows how to slice you up like Thanksgiving turkey.
Tsitsipas realized that one win over Federer — which will likely carry meaning for him as his career evolves — didn’t teach him everything he thought he needed to know. He still needed to learn more, and to be more specific, he needed to learn not from victory, but from a loss, and more particularly, from a beatdown.
Welcome — officially — to the Big 3’s world, Stef. Beating one might get you to a major semifinal, but you need to beat at least two and possibly three to win the trophy.
Here is the key point to emphasize, however: Many might look at the enormous chasm between Tsitsipas and Nadal in the semifinals and conclude that Stefanos is far, far away from winning a major. That conclusion is not even wrong. I would concur at this point… but that’s NOT the point.
This is the point: Tsitsipas, at age 20, has already tasted what it is like to play two Big 3 opponents at the same major tournament. He has already tasted what it is like to receive a clinic from Professor Nadal on what it takes to not only win at the highest level, but to deal with a bad matchup and solve problems.
What Tsitsipas has learned at this Australian Open might not emerge in the next few months, or even later this year, or even in the next two years. Remember that if Federer-Tsitsipas DOES turn out to be this era’s Sampras-Federer 2001 Wimbledon match, the parallel will be complete NOT if Tsitsipas immediately thrives, but if he requires two years to put all the pieces together. Federer, remember, needed two years to finally lock all of his championship qualities into place and then roar.
The beauty of this tournament for Tsitsipas is that at age 20, he already received a double education on the workings of the Big 3, and on the reality of becoming great. Some players don’t get this deep into a major until their mid-to-late 20s or, in Kevin Anderson’s case, the early 30s.
Don’t expect Tsitsipas to take the ATP Tour by storm this year… but do understand that it is good to take a beating like this earlier in one’s career than later on. The sooner one learns essential lessons — in tennis or in life — the better.
Put that zen quote in a Tsitsipas tweet.