Beating Roger Federer at a major tournament speaks for itself, viewed in isolation and disconnected from any other contexts or considerations. Yet, Stefanos Tsitsipas’s unavoidably familiar win over the Swiss, recalling Federer’s passing-of-the-torch victory over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, is profoundly resonant beyond its own parameters.
Yes, this win represents a massive feat and a sign that this 20-year-old has some big-league chops. No, let’s not assume that he will win a bunch of majors. Let’s not play that game right now. We can wait and afford to be patient. Remember: Federer didn’t win a major until two years after that Sampras win in 2001.
We can all see that Tsitsipas has enormous potential, and that his career is headed in the right direction. That’s the obvious reality after his win over Federer in nearly four hours in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
The key insight — and the larger context which magnifies Tsitsipas’s achievement — is the shaping of an attitude which brought this victory into being.
It is impossible to look at Day 7 of the 2019 Australian Open and view Tsitsipas’s memorable win in isolation, relative to other events on the ATP side of this tournament.
Earlier on Sunday, two players with a very high level of natural talent — Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov — came up very short in fourth-round matches.
Berdych didn’t show up for two whole sets against Rafael Nadal, then got a mini-break lead late in the third-set tiebreaker, only to squander it with familiarly shaky play. A lot of people allowed themselves to think that Berdych was a scary force based on his Week 1 form, but quickly forgot how he competes against the Big 3 on most occasions. Ceding mental ground in the face of formidable opposition is a Berdych constant, and it reemerged on Sunday against Rafa, whose mental command of his surroundings is as famous as it is enduring.
Frances Tiafoe is a rising star in his own right, and he has been terrific this week, but with that having been said, the 27-year-old Dimitrov should beat Tiafoe in the fourth round of a major. Grigor is in his athletic prime. He is six and a half years older than Tiafoe. Physically, Dimitrov is very fit and is used to playing five-set matches at a level Tiafoe is just beginning to encounter. Dimitrov once again stumbled through a match in which he consistently arrived at the verge of something good — breaking Tiafoe to stay in the first set, gaining a break lead in the second set, gaining multiple set points in the second-set tiebreaker — but then faltered when it came time to drive home a dagger in his far less experienced opponent. Dimitrov called his four-set loss to Tiafoe “strange.”
A super sad and lost Dimitrov at press. Clearly doesn't understand how this one has escaped. "It's painful", he says, after having worked so hard this winter. Calls this match and loss "strange".
— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) January 20, 2019
I don’t blame Dimitrov for being very sad — he should be. Yet, “strange” is the last word I would apply to this loss to Tiafoe. We have seen it dozens of times from Grigor in big matches, especially at the majors.
I keep coming back to this essential observation about Dimitrov: He is a combination of meat and cheese and tomato sauce and bread — the finest-quality ingredients — but when you put them together in the heat of an oven, you don’t get a good pizza. The high temperature of elite competition simply bakes him in a way which doesn’t allow his tennis ingredients to leave a pleasant taste in the palate. The chemical reactions which produce memorably delicious servings of food just don’t occur in Grigor’s tennis game. He can hit every kind of shot. He can run. His body doesn’t break down — he solved the fitness problems which plagued him early in his career.
In Dimitrov, as in Berdych, the weight of big moments consistently crashes down upon the mind and prevents the body from hitting a tennis ball cleanly. Both men are so good at hitting a tennis ball, but they don’t do it when it really matters.
The oppression they feel in big moments is almost palpable. It is why Berdych won’t win a major, and why Dimitrov very likely won’t as well. All that talent, and for what?
That was part of Sunday at the Australian Open, and it’s exactly what casts Tsitsipas — and his display of huevos rancheros against Federer — into such a different light.
I will leave it to others to discuss the quality of Tsitsipas’ shimmering brand of tennis. For now, I simply want to emphasize how much Tsitsipas REVELS in the big moment. You can tell: He ENJOYS PRESSURE. He eats it up. He WANTS to feel that tension.
I gained that vibe when watching Tsitsipas advance to the Toronto final, but that was a Masters tournament. Tsitsipas was dusted by nemesis Daniil Medvedev early in the 2018 U.S. Open. Everyone in the tennis world was waiting for Tsitsipas to go deeper in a major and play one of the big boys. This was that moment.
You could see how much the 20-year-old embraced the scene and the situation instead of being oppressed by it the way Berdych and Dimitrov have allowed to happen over the years.
You can teach a player to train his mind to a certain degree, but you can’t teach an innate response such as that. Some people have to work hard at reshaping how they think or react, but others very naturally inhabit a mindset without having to struggle to attain it.
Tsitsipas very easily makes love to the big moment.
It is not the only difference between him and the Berdych-Dimitrov combo, but it might be the most essential one.
When Tsitsipas called for the trainer midway through the fourth set, it was easy to think, “Uh-oh, the kid who isn’t used to playing a ton of five-setters, especially not against a legend of the game, is on the verge of reaching his limits.” That was a perfectly logical response to what was happening.
Yet, did you see Tsitsipas flinch in any real way at the end of the fourth set? No.
Does this mean he was utterly free from fear or uncertainty? Maybe so — he had nothing to lose in this match — but even then, the amount of time he had spent on court in an emotionally draining environment could have easily sapped his focus.
Tsitsipas maintained great clarity. It simply didn’t occur to him to view anything happening to his body as a burden.
You can’t teach that.
Tsitsipas loved the pain. He doesn’t view the challenges which come his way as burdensome. Suffering, hardship, adversity, challenges — everything in Stefanos Tsitsipas’s demeanor on court suggests that he cheerfully greets these obstacles and says to them, “Bring them on!”
It couldn’t be more perpendicularly different from how Berdych and Dimitrov face pressure.
Loving everything about tennis marks this 20-year-old from Greece. The man he just defeated has won 20 majors precisely for that same reason, of course. Federer enjoys the travel, and the chance to be an ambassador for tennis, and the players in the locker room, and everything that goes with life on tour.
The man Tsitsipas could face in the semifinals — should be beat first-time major quarterfinalist Roberto Bautista Agut — is also renowned for loving tennis. Rafael Nadal loves suffering. He loves the battle and the struggle.
Novak Djokovic — represented in his decade-long pursuit of Federer and Nadal, and even more precisely in the successful nature of said pursuit — owns a hunger for complete excellence which is exceeded by no one. (It might be MATCHED by Fedal, but it isn’t exceeded.)
The great players really do love the pain of tennis — the stress, the pressure, the effort required, the journey into the unknown.
Stefanos Tsitsipas’s greatest asset right now is that he loves everything this sport demands of anyone who wants to be special.
This doesn’t guarantee he will forge an iconic career, but after a win which carried echoes of another fourth-round match at a major tournament — from the summer of 2001 at Wimbledon — it can certainly be said that Tsitsipas is Tsitting pretty in his quest for tennis greatness.