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Forward steps for Stefanos

Matt Zemek

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Evolution — in life as well as in sports — generally happens in steps.

Sure, there are always exceptions. A child prodigy writes heartbreakingly great music which stands the test of time. Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, and Boris Becker (among others) won major championships before turning 18, with barely any experience on the main tour.

Yet, for every Mozart or Monica, most of us have to go through several cycles of learning — and failure — before tasting sweet success.

Moreover, as we consider the example of Stefanos Tsitsipas after his stunning comeback win over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinals, we have to remind ourselves that Tsitsipas is expected to lose to Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals. He is still not likely to make his first major final, let alone win the whole thing. There are still lots of obstacles in Tsitsipas’s path on the road to a breakthrough championship.

There are so many more steps to take.

Yet, what matters for Stef at age 22 — five whole years younger than Dominic Thiem, and three years younger than Medvedev, whom he will face on Friday — is that he is accumulating important experiences.

They don’t guarantee evolution and progress, but they definitely make the evolutionary process a lot more likely to happen.

We can see, so clearly and simply, how Stef’s accumulated experiences are helping him. They helped him against Nadal.

We wondered just how much it would benefit Tsitsipas to have taken Novak Djokovic to five sets in the 2020 Roland Garros semifinals. Yes, it did seem valuable that Tsitsipas lost that match in five instead of three. He came closer to winning. His legs burned and his spirit was tested. Had he meekly lost in straight sets, he wouldn’t have realized what he was capable of. He wouldn’t have walked away from that match knowing he was getting closer to the summit.

Winning — not merely coming close — is the goal for professional athletes, but it remains that coming close is better than not coming close at all. Tsitsipas didn’t fully achieve his goal in France, but he did gain understanding of how to reach that goal in the future.

The question became, “How quickly and substantially would Tsitsipas use that moment in Paris as a building block, another stepping stone for his career?”

We evidently didn’t have to wait very long.

The first two sets of this match felt like the 2019 Australian Open semifinal blowout, in which Nadal steamrolled Tsitsipas. That was a completely expected outcome, because it was Tsitsipas’s first major semifinal. It’s hard to know how to act when you haven’t been there before.

This is why the first two sets of this 2021 quarterfinal on Wednesday were so massively disappointing from Tsitsipas: We have seen him not only thrive, but fight. We have seen not only his artistic shotmaking, but his willingness to battle. There was no battle mode in those first two sets. Tsitsipas anxiously rushed the net behind unconvincing approaches.

Yes, shortening points and going big against Nadal has to be Plan A, but one must be willing and able to ride out longer rallies when necessary against Rafa, showing him that the 20-time major champion isn’t the only man on the court who can stand behind the baseline and slug it out in a lung-busting rally. If Nadal or any other elite player sees impatience and a low shot tolerance on the other side of the net, he will feast. Rafa ate paella those first two sets, devouring the fat morsels served to him on a platter by a restless and unfocused Greek opponent.

In the third set, Tsitsipas still didn’t make any dent into the Nadal serve, but he at least began to build a fortress around his own serve. Recalling Roger Federer — the obvious point of comparison for anyone trying to survive Nadal’s onslaught without the superior ground game — Tsitsipas leaned on his serve, got into a tiebreak, benefited from a few untimely Nadal errors, and boom. A fourth set had arrived.

Suddenly, Tsitsipas had reason to think his young legs could help him in an extended battle. Suddenly, Nadal did not have complete control of the match, even though he was still the more likely winner entering Set 4.

The third set is not when this match began to resemble the Djokovic match in Paris for Tsitsipas. The fourth set is when this match began to look and feel like Roland Garros this past October.

Tsitsipas began to get his teeth into some Nadal service games, as Rafa’s level — very high through three sets — finally declined on a more continuous basis, with some uncommonly common errors leaking into his game. Tsitsipas slowly but steadily became a more emboldened player. He won more and more of the match’s longer rallies, standing in the arena and throwing punches without bailing out on points. Ever since he won a difficult 5-5, 0-15 point late in the third set, he never again backed down.

At 4-4 in the fourth set, Tsitsipas notched his first break of serve after steadily increasing more pressure on Nadal’s service games. He promptly served out the set. He had brought himself back to the same scenario he had authored in Paris: locked in a fifth set against a member of the Big 3 after trailing by two sets.

He had been here before.

Against Nadal — propelled by his prior journey against Djokovic — Stefanos Tsitsipas acted as though he understood what the moment required.

Nadal improved in Set 5 from his relatively poor performance in Set 4, but what didn’t change was that Tsitsipas had erected a castle around his serve. In the first three sets, Nadal’s serve was untouchable, but in the last three sets, Tsitsipas was never broken. The Greek bided his time, weathered the Nadal storm, successfully held serve to stay in the match at 4-5 in the fifth, and then pounced at 5-5 when Nadal made the final few errors Tsitsipas needed.

Tsitsipas wobbled a little when serving for the match at 6-5 in the fifth; Nadal had an open passing shot down the line at 0-30, albeit on the run and from a defensive position, but after the Spaniard missed that half-chance for a 0-40 triple-break-point opportunity, the Tsitsipas serve won a few cheap points. Nadal made one last bad error on deuce, and Tsitsipas cashed it in on the next point to seal his victory.

Is it possible Tsitsipas could have won this match without taking Djokovic to five sets in Paris? Sure… but it wouldn’t have been nearly as likely.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is still not likely to win this Australian Open. He isn’t even likely to make his first major final. Yet, after this win over Nadal, it remains true and clear: This career is moving in the right direction. At 22 years of age, that’s a very important truth to absorb.

Stefanos Tsitsipas clearly absorbed the right lessons from Novak Djokovic last October.

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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