Atop the tree—in Toronto and in the world—was the 32-year-old No1 Rafael Nadal, owner of three Rogers Cup titles, aiming for his 80th career title, and hoping to extend his record of Masters titles to 33.
The other three were bidding to reach their first ever Masters final, and owned just six titles between them. And yet, each of those three was enjoying very fine seasons.
Nadal’s immediate challenge came from the 6ft 6in Russian, Karen Khachanov, just 22 years old, a former top-30 player, a two-time titlist, and with fourth-round runs at both the French Open and Wimbledon. He had beaten two seeds in Toronto, including Atlanta champion John Isner, but perhaps surprisingly, he had not got further than the third round in a Masters before.
The other semi-final was also between a 32-year-old—Kevin Anderson—and a much younger opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was just one day short of his 20th birthday. And both were recording career-highs almost with every tournament.
Anderson, runner-up at the US Open last year and then at Wimbledon this year, was targeting his fifth final of the year, and his first at a Masters. That Wimbledon run drew on deep wells of physical and mental strength—he beat both Roger Federer and Isner in five-set marathons and deservedly reached a new high of No5.
He could make it to No4 should he win in Toronto, and strengthen his campaign to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals for the first time, but it just so happened that he had lost his only previous meeting against Tsitsipas, in Estoril this summer.
And the young Greek had blossomed since his quarter-final start to 2018 in Doha, ranked 91. He made a big statement with a final run in Barcelona to reach 44. He impressed again on Wimbledon’s grass to reach the fourth round, and beat David Goffin on his way to the semis in Washington last week.
But Toronto was bringing out his best yet. He beat Dominic Thiem, then a three-set thriller against four-time Rogers Cup champion Novak Djokovic, and came back from match points to beat No2 seed Alexander Zverev.
His exuberant combination of power, variety, attack, plus tall, rangy good looks and a single-handed backhand, were drawing fans aplenty, and he was into the top 20 with his Toronto efforts, but how much energy did he have left after so many testing matches?
He started well against the tall, powerful Anderson, and held his own all the way to a tie-breaker. But there, the composure and experience of Anderson pulled back an early 2-4 gap to win five straight points and the set, 7-6(4).
The Greek faced another uphill task, then, if he was to halt the Anderson juggernaut, but just as he showed against Zverev, Tsitsipas has deep reserves of self-belief and grit: He would not stand back and wait for defeat. Instead, he upped the attack, and forced the first break in the third game.
He had to show more strength of will to hold off break points and hold for 5-3, as both men cranked up the quality: They had to in order to stay in contention. Anderson then held for love, but Tsitsipas soaked up the pressure to serve it out, 6-4, courtesy of a fine net attack. Indeed he had made six from six at the net in the set, and both men had stacked up more winners than errors.
That trend continued into the compelling final set. Anderson’s serving was now hitting its best: he would win 12/13 first serves in holding his first four service games. And although Tsitsipas came under constant pressure, he resisted early deuces, a break point in the sixth game, and hit back from deuce in the eighth with two aces. It was courageous and mature tennis, and the pressure began to show in Anderson’s serving.
Missing several first deliveries, the older man faced down a break point in the ninth game, and they headed to the rightful conclusion, a tie-break—which opened with a double fault from Anderson.
But there was no more than a point between them until Tsitsipas scored a great forehand winner for 6-4: The crowd erupted, and the blue and white flags shook.
But now he double faulted, and Anderson held for his own match point. The Greek serve again delivered—and an ace brought up a third match point for Tsitsipas. Anderson made one final error, and one of the best matches of the tournament was done, 7-6(7). The Greek would play his first Masters final on his 20th birthday.
Tsitsipas has written long, careful messages on the camera after each win of his Toronto journey, but this one summed it up: “It does not get any easier; you just get better.”
It may have referred to the crowd, who he thanked profusely for their support, but it may also have referred to the young man himself. And the rankings do not lie. He was barely inside the top 100 at the start of the year: He is up to around 15 now; and he could be No12 if he wins the title.
He would have to wait many hours yet to discover who he played, but he would surely hope for a tilt at the very best, Nadal. After all, the Spaniard denied him in his first final in Barcelona. But this time, of course, it would not be on clay. And Tsitsipas has indeed got better in those few intervening months.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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