Australian Open 2019: Stefanos Tsitsipas victorious over idol Federer in leonine battle for QF place
Roger Federer is out of the Australian Open after Stefanos Tsitsipas beat the defending champions to reach the quarter-finals
It had been coming, as any fans of tennis knew, this rise of the exciting, fearless, attacking Greek player, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The genes were there, for a start: his mother a former player, his father a coach. And the stars seemed to align, too, for those who give credence to such things: Born in the same week in calendar as Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer—Leos and record-setting Major champions all.
He rose to become the junior No1 in 2016, having already won five Futures titles and with two Challenger finals to his name, at the age of 18.
Come 2017, ranked 210, he would break the top 100 with a semi finish in Antwerp, and his first top-10 win. And in 2018, the Greek’s explosive talent got real traction: a final finish in Barcelona via Dominic Thiem and Diego Schwartzman, a semi run in Estoril via Kevin Anderson, the fourth round at Wimbledon, and a Masters final in Toronto, where he beat four top-10 players—including Novak Djokovic—before losing to Rafael Nadal.
His 20th birthday also marked his arrival in the top 20, and he would end the year with his first title, in Stockholm, and an unbeaten sweep through the #NextGen finals.
By now, he had become hard to miss. His tennis, complete with one-handed backhand, was full of flair and energy, but he also stood out for his presence: Tall, with striking good looks and long blond hair, Tsitsipas has a certain swagger that is tempered by a quiet, confident charm.
From his junior exploits at the US Open in 2016—and this writer’s first interview with the teenager—to his fan-packed exit from practice at Roland Garros the following May, to a raucous doubles match in Rotterdam last year, he has drawn the crowds.
But he had yet to beat his childhood idol, Federer, though the mighty Swiss was also full of admiration for the 20-year-old’s tennis. For he had seen it up close barely a fortnight before they engaged in battle in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
At the Hopman Cup, their first meeting was one of the most eagerly anticipated singles matches of the tournament. Here, the tennis public now knew, was one of the best prospects among the new generation of players to break through the glass ceiling maintained by Federer, Djokovic and Nadal for so long.
Tsitsipas admitted in Perth: “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for a very long time,” and his admiration of the Swiss oozed from his tennis, not just that backhand but in his variety of shot, his boldness in moving forward, and his growing net skills. Federer, indeed, had to play at his best level to hold off the youngster: It would take two tie-breaks to decide the outcome, to Federer.
But if there was one stat in their fast-paced contest that spoke volumes, it was the combined 57 points the two had played at the net. Both had made more winners than errors, and had remained unbroken throughout.
Federer commented afterwards, “He could be my son!” And yes, they were born in the same week—but 17 years apart. The Swiss played his first senior-tour match before the Greek was born, and claimed the first of his 1,183 match-wins when Tsitsipas was a month old. But as these pages said after that match, another meeting, with more at stake, would not be long coming—and here it was, to determine a quarter-final place.
Still many insisted that a win for the young Greek would be a big upset. The No14 seed did not see it that way:
“Mentally, for players to beat him, they have to be ready and believe in themselves that… their game is great enough to beat such a player. I feel good. I can tell you that.”
And while that confidence looked in short supply in the first few points, it did not last long. The Greek began edgily, trying to slow things down to steady the nerves, but Federer was keen to keep the pace up: a backhand winner, a volley winner and it was break point. The umpire was keen to keep up the pace, too, and a time warning was followed by a violation, a lost first serve, and another break point.
Still Tsitsipas held off the challenge, and after nine minutes, he had held. From there on, the Greek serve settled into strong holds. Indeed, it was only Federer who got taken to deuce on their way to a tie-break, and once there, Tsitsipas got the first point against serve with a ripped return through Federer, 2-0.
The Swiss levelled but the Greek serve was warming up nicely, and his return really tested Federer at the net. Tsitsipas conceded the edge, but got back on terms, 5-5, and held off a first set point with a great net finish, 6-6.
A shanked forehand from Federer, and it was his turn to face set point—and so it went on: another forehand error, and Federer again saved set point, with a smash.
They changed ends at 9-9 when another wayward forehand from Federer failed to seal the set. Finally, the Swiss drew the vital error with his aggressive forward play, and edged the set, 7-6(11) after an hour of big-time, high-speed tennis.
Federer held to love to open. However, the Greek was not going to be intimidated, and he returned the favour, closing out his love hold with an ace. After that initial flurry of nerves in the very first game, Tsitsipas had played with admirable focus, attack, and calm. He held again with ease, racing in for net finishes time and again.
Federer worked a first break chance in the sixth game, faced a second serve, but hit a forehand long: And history repeated a couple of minutes later. The game extended beyond eight minutes, and although Tstisipas misfired a couple of forehands, again Federer could not convert. The Greek hit a backhand down the line to hold.
Federer’s serve, though, brooked no challenge, a second love hold, and again he took the Greek to deuce. There would be six deuces and another break chance before Tsitsipas held, 4-4—a measure of the young player’s resilience.
Federer still looked the favourite for the set: three love holds, 20/22 points won on serve. But it was a baseline rally that earned him another break chance, snuffed out by an ace. Two more came and went, saved by fine serves and a smash. The Greek had saved three set points, 5-5, and Federer had failed to convert eight break points in the set. He would live to regret it.
After a love hold from Tsitsipas, it went to a tie-break, and this time, the Greek seized the advantage, 3-0, and from 3-3, his attacking play earned their reward, 7-6(3). And it was well earned: More winners than Federer, fewer errors, faster serving, and more net points played and won— 33/46 compared with Federer’s 28-34.
What did the defending champion have left to break a young pretender almost half his age? The match had been played fast, had been demanding, athletic, all-court stuff, and was already two and a quarter hours long.
Yet again, Federer could not convert two break points—now 0-12 in the match—and he faced severe consequences. Tsitsipas was feeling more confident with every game, and cracked two forehands to work his own first two break points in the match. Now it was Federer who had to dig deep, and he reeled off four straight points, 4-4.
Federer’s serve had to hold firm again as Tsitsipas held to love for 6-5, but this time it let him down—perhaps the first signs of weariness in his legs. The Greek broke for the set, 7-5, at just five minutes short of three hours. It marked the first time, from that first game in the Hopman Cup to this 60th, that either man had broken the other.
And although the fourth set would go to a tie-break, this felt like a momentum switch to the Greek. He opened with a love hold and three aces, while Federer was the one finding easy points hard to come by. Yet the defending champion twice served to stay in the match to ensure the tie-break.
There, Tsitsipas edged the lead, and when Federer put another forehand long for match-point, the Swiss had no answer to a forehand winner from the Greek: 7-6(5), after three and three-quarter hours of high-octane tennis.
In a match of 123 winners and far fewer errors, with almost 100 points won at the net, it had showcased just what can be produced with all-court skill, athleticism, and the will to play attacking tennis.
And Tsitsipas acknowledged as much, once he could gather his thoughts:
“I’m the happiest man on earth right now. I actually believed from the very beginning it was important to keep that mind-set, to believe in your capabilities. Roger is a legend of our sport—it’s a dream come true to be on Rod Laver Arena to play him…
“I do believe coming to the net, being aggressive, we have to keep [this style of tennis] going. Most players in this era are baseliners, and I really like this aggressive game, coming to the net. It keeps the game alive, makes it much more interesting.”
Many will heartily agree that such variety in the sport is vital. Perhaps some feared it was a style that would disappear when Federer decides to retire—though his plans to return to the French Open for the first time since 2015 suggest that is not imminent. But Tsitsipas is a worthy flag-bearer, and several other young players have shown a willingness to hone their front-of-court skills, too.
What Tsitsipas clearly has, though, is enormous mental resolve, the final cog in reaching the top of this gladiatorial sport. He admitted:
“It was actually very mental, I would say. I could have cracked at any moment, but I didn’t because I really wanted it bad. For sure, that mental toughness helped a lot. It could have been a different match if I wouldn’t stand that pressure.”
More big battles remain. In the quarters, it will be the admirable No22 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who beat last year’s runner-up, Marin Cilic, in his third five-setter and four hours, 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. In the semis, the formidable former champion, Nadal, dispatched Tomas Berdych, 6-0, 6-1, 7-6(4), and takes on Frances Tiafoe, who turned 21 by beating Grigor Dimitrov, 7-5, 7-6(6), 6-7(1), 7-5.
But don’t be surprised if this new lion of the tennis stage comes through all of those challenges. It had been coming, the arrival of Tsitsipas at the sharp end of a Major.