He caught the eye as a teenager, of course: His flowing hair, flowing game, flowing one-handed backhand stood out from the crowd as he rose to the top of the junior ranks. He quickly caught the eye in 2017 by closing out the season with his first four senior match-wins and reaching the semis in Antwerp, where he scored his first top-10 win, over David Goffin.
That, however, did not prepare tennis fans for the speed of his rise up the ranks from 91 in 2018. He made a first final at the prestigious 500 event in Barcelona, with his second top-10 win over Dominic Thiem—one of three top 20 wins—before hitting Rafael Nadal like a brick wall.
Another big scalp in Estoril, Kevin Anderson, where he made the semis, then his first fourth round at a Major, Wimbledon, followed by the performance that truly launched him onto tennis fans’ radar: He would beat Thiem, Anderson, Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic on his way to a Masters final in Toronto. Again, it was Nadal who halted him—though rather less easily.
The young Greek ended 2018 with two titles, Stockholm and the NextGen Finals, ranked 15.
Australian took to him immediately, took to his attacking style of play and to his charismatic personality. They even forgave him his defeat of Melbourne’s double defending champion and No3 seed, Roger Federer, by playing his idol at his own aggressive game.
The fairytale run continued all the way to the semis via giant-killer Roberto Bautista Agut, in the Greek’s fifth straight four-set match, and the hours had totted up to 15.5. But it earned Tsitsipas a third tilt at Nadal, and with it the chance to notch up wins over the three greatest players of the era, and the three top-ranked men in the world.
But for all his confidence, his flair, his power, and tactical smarts, it would become a reality-check for the 20-year-old: He would again hit the Nadal buffers.
The signs were, of course, there from the moment the 2009 Australian champion and four-time finalist hit the ground running in Melbourne after four months away from competition. Nadal last played in the semis of the US Open, forced to retire against Juan Martin del Potro with knee injury, and would miss the rest of the season—and had missed six earlier tournaments—with various other problems.
But returning to the site of his quarter-final retirement 12 months ago—with a hip injury—Nadal had clearly used his time away very well. Yes, rested and recuperated, of course, but with a niggling ankle issue resolved by minor surgery, too.
But he had worked on a lot more besides—perhaps from a determination to follow the example of his older colleague, Federer, and change things up in his game. The serve looked flatter, faster and more destructive, plus he showed a greater willingness to take early control of rallies, come to the net—a previously underused part of his game considering his volley and overhead skills—and win from the front.
In a career packed by long matches full of long rallies, here was a man taking the initiative, determined to keep his career burning for a few more years yet.
It paid off in spades through a draw littered with young challengers: Before Tsitsipas, he had beaten teenager Alex de Minaur and 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe. Add in a rejuvenated Tomas Berdych plus two more Australian players just outside the seedings, and Nadal arrived at the semis without dropping a set, playing only one tie-break, having spent little more than 10 hours on court.
Tsitsipas certainly began with intent, clearly aiming to play to his strengths with big serve-and-one-strike tennis, coming forward to take time away from his opponent and cut out the infamous Nadal passing shots at the root.
He took the first point with a serve and volley winner, and held to 15. But come the third game, Nadal was mixing up his returns, now back, now forward on the baseline, and delivering his returns with vim. At 30-30, he pounded a return forehand down the line for break point. Tsitsipas, all at once, was on the back foot, and forced into error. Nadal’s hyper aggressive tactics during this Australian Open had already got their reward: a break, 2-1.
Nadal consolidated with an impressive love hold, 3-1, and Tsitsipas answered in kind—a backhand winner following an ace. However, the attacking tennis from Nadal seemed to have taken Tsitsipas by surprise. From 40-15, the Greek hit two double faults, and threw in a drop shot on break point, but Nadal answered the call with a deft pass: 5-2.
Nadal was now doing the dominating inside the court, came in for a forehand volley, made another big serve, and he had the set in just half an hour, 6-2.
The Greek took a quick comfort break in the oppressive heat of this Melbourne evening, and came back to try again, and he looked composed in a love opening hold
It was still all square as Tsitsipas stepped up to serve at 2-2, but Nadal pulled off a signature forehand round the post into the corner, then a wicked net-clip beat the Greek, and he faced 0-40. Tsitsipas did not hold back, though, came to the net for a fine touch volley, then made deuce with a forehand-smash combo. An outstanding backhand volley pick-up winner, then an ace, and he had held.
The Arena rose to cheer the effort, and make no mistake: the support from the huge Greek population in this city had boosted the atmosphere in every match that their new star played.
Tsitsipas’s level remained solid, and easy holds on both sides followed. But then he made a couple of tactical errors, leaving the court open for Nadal’s punishment, and faced two more break points. He saved the first with a serve and volley, but lost the second as, this time, Nadal’s return landed at his feet to draw the error.
So Nadal stepped up to serve for the set, and a final swinging leftie serve did the trick, 6-4. Nadal had dropped just seven points on serve thus far, and still more impressive, had made 14 from 16 net points—more than his opponent.
Within a couple of minutes, Nadal had stepped in with a backhand winner to break in the first game of the third set, the Spaniard’s 22nd winner. The story, it appeared, was already written: Nadal held with ease, and then pulled off a perfect lob to work another break chance in the third game. He smashed the winner away, 3-0.
Indeed, Nadal could do little wrong, and Tsitsipas was at a loss for how to break down this attack. He could not win points from the front of the court or the back, on serve or against serve. By the time Nadal stepped up to serve for the match, Tsitsipas’s serve was below 50 percent, and he would not manage a single winner in the set.
The Greek did get a look at his first break point of the match—largely courtesy of a couple of over-enthusiastic errors from Nadal—but that door was swiftly slammed shut. A winning serve and Nadal was into his 25th Major final, 6-0, after an hour and three-quarters, the Spaniard’s quickest match.
Perhaps Tsitsipas had watched too much of his idol Federer’s tennis and too little of Nadal’s, or he may have been unprepared for the renewed vigour, aggression, and pace of the 17-time Major champion. However, while the Greek lacks experience at this level, he is smart, will lick his wounds, and come back a better player.
There may be many others who were also unprepared for this remodelled Nadal, surprised at such a high standard after so long away, and knocked out of their comfort zone by the increased power and speed of play of the Spaniard. For one thing, Nadal was never in danger of a time violation on serve, so quickly did he play. For another, he is up to 40 aces and almost 200 points won at the net so far in the tournament.
Yet afterwards, asked on court whether he could play any better than this latest masterclass, he paused, smiled, and said:
Nadal will play his fifth Australian final against either six-time champion and No1 Djokovic or against Lucas Pouille, who will be playing his first Major semi-final. And should the Spaniard win come Sunday, he would become the first man in the Open era to win all four Majors twice.
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