Tsitsipas' Journey: From Dreaming Of Beating The Best To Being Among Them

Stefanos Tsitsipas is the first Greek to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals. As Reem Abulleil writes, the 21-year-old debutant is very much one of a kind.

To get a sense of just how much it means to Stefanos Tsitsipas to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals for the first time, all you have to do is watch the video of when he found out he had secured a spot in London.

An interviewer broke the news to Tsitsipas on camera, just after he had defeated Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals of the ATP Masters 1000 event in Shanghai in October. The 21-year-old Greek burst into laughter, almost in disbelief, as the reporter assured him he was telling the truth. “It’s great. It’s sweet,” Tsitsipas later said with a grin on his face, after processing the good news. “It’s something that I have been trying to get, and it was on my [wish] list from the beginning of the year.”

Just 12 months after lifting the Next Gen ATP Finals trophy in Milan, which is for players who are 21 or under, Tsitsipas has positioned himself among the world’s top eight players, of all ages, at this season-ending tournament in London. The first Greek player in history to feature in this elite competition, Tsitsipas enters the Nitto ATP Finals after a year in which he has kept on crossing off items on his wish list. Before the start of the season, he set himself some ambitious targets to chase throughout 2019. And he did not shy away from announcing them, unfazed by the thought that being so public with his goals would add to the pressure he was under.

Barely four weeks into the season, he achieved his first main goal when he reached a first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open, upsetting Roger Federer en route in a blockbuster fourth-round encounter. A month later, he crossed another item off his list by cracking the Top 10 in the ATP Rankings for the first time, becoming the first Greek to climb that high in the standings. By April, he had picked up a second title of the year in Estoril, to go with the one he had scooped in Marseille in February (and to add to his first ATP Tour title in Stockholm in 2018, when he was the first Greek in history to win a trophy at that level).

Among other highlights this season, he accomplished one of the toughest feats in tennis, overcoming Rafael Nadal on clay at the Spaniard’s home tournament, the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid in May. In June, he co-produced one of the best matches of the year with Stan Wawrinka, in the fourth round at Roland Garros. And in October – after a tricky stint of sub-par results – he took down Djokovic in Shanghai. “I always dreamt of beating those players, and I see each match when I go out on the court as an opportunity to bring the best out of me,” said Tsitsipas. “It’s a very big boost. I honestly feel like they are more threatened than I am, and I think also that gives me kind of a more relaxed me out on the court.”

While Tsitsipas is not the only young gun making an impact on the ATP Tour at the moment, he is very much one-of-a-kind. “I’m not perfect, I’m original,” he wrote in a social media post this year. ‘Original’ is an apt description. While others his age spend most of their downtime playing video games or streaming TV shows, Tsitsipas dedicates hours each week to his amateur photography, as well as filming, editing and producing vlogs for his YouTube channel, which has more than 160,000 subscribers.

“Photography for me is a way to shape human perception, a creative outlet which lives in the present and pushes you to discover yourself,” said Tsitsipas, who has an alternative Instagram account, @stevethehawk. He says his vlogs help him stay “open-minded and young, being able to just live life and share moments with other human beings”.

His social media accounts are a mix of philosophical quotes and cryptic one-liners only he can decipher. But when he felt he was spending more time than he wanted to on such platforms, he went on a “social media detox” on various occasions this year. It was a move he believes helped him both on and off the court. “I feel much more connected than before with people that I care about,” he said. “I spend more quality time. I feel more human and more like me than ever before. I feel like I can also concentrate more on the sport that I play.”

Tall, quirky and with hair like Björn Borg, Tsitsipas also brings an exciting game style that feels like a throwback to a bygone era. He ventures to the net any chance he gets, flaunting smooth hand skills and daring dive volleys, reminiscent of a young Boris Becker.

At 6’4”, he has a big serve that helped him win around 85 per cent of his service games this season. Another attribute is his ability to play his best tennis at moments of great intensity, while he takes enormous pride in putting Greece on the tennis map.

Tsitsipas is coached by his father, Apostolos, who saved him from drowning in 2015 – an incident the player admits gave him a new perspective on life. Tsitsipas tries to do his part in helping others. When Greece was ravaged by deadly fires in 2018, Tsitsipas spent hours each day trying to raise funds to send back home, even when he was due to step on court for a semi-final a few minutes later.

His ability to engage with fans by showing his most authentic, unapologetic self, combined with his thrilling on-court game, has seen his popularity soar this year. Having posted victories over the sport’s Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, and with the kind of self-confidence that has inserted him among the world’s best, many believe Tsitsipas could be the one to break the trio’s stronghold.

“At some point we will see change. I mean, it can’t be that Rafa, Roger, and Novak win everything,” Tsitsipas said. “I know that in order to see my name among these titles, I’m going to have to go through a lot of pain and a lot of hype and struggle. I’m honestly excited. I’m excited by the idea of trying to get there.”