Dubai 2019

Dubai 2019: Stefanos Tsitsipas comes through tough Ebden test after night-flight from Marseille victory

“I had to take the flight knowing I’m going to have to play the day after. Six hours on the plane. I arrived here at 2am, then had to play the same day,” says Tsitsipas

Stefanos Tsitsipas
Stefanos Tsitsipas (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The wait for one of the new stars at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Stefanos Tsitsipas, was a little longer than anticipated after he had made a despondent, tired, and downcast exit from Rotterdam following a first-round loss there to Damir Dzumhur, a man ranked 56 and without a match-win since the Paris Masters last season

The young Greek immediately pronounced that he was not sure he felt up to playing at his next scheduled tournament, literally days later, in Marseille.

His loss had been a shock and a disappointment for Rotterdam and the fans: He may not have been the top seed there, but there was no denying that he was one of the biggest attractions, for the charismatic 20-year-old Greek caught the eye of fans long ago.

He started 2018 ranked 91, then beat three top-20 players on the way to the Barcelona final, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, the semis of Washington, and made a Masters final in Toronto after beating four top-10 players, finally losing the title match again to Rafael Nadal.

By the end of the year, he had won his first title in Stockholm and won the #NextGen Finals in Milan, to arrive at this year’s Australian Open ranked No15—an astonishing rise. And his profile shot up with his ranking, helped not a little by his striking looks, explosive all-court tennis, one-handed backhand, and a way with words on vlogs and tweets.

When he got to the semis in Melbourne, taking out Roger Federer in the process, his fame was assured.

He came down to earth with a bump in Rotterdam, then, but the dip did not last long. Not only did he enter Marseille, he won it, and arrived in Dubai, surely weary from jet-lag, but ranked at a new career high of No11, with an 11-4 run for the season—more, once the Hopman Cup in the first week of January was added.

He faced the 47-ranked Matthew Ebden, a late-maturing 31-year-old and with just one career final to his name, who had knee surgery in 2016. Since then, he had slowly edged his way up the ranks to break the top 40 just months ago. His game, too, was not entirely conventional, harking back to a more serve-and-volley style but with a double-handed backhand.

So this would be a fast-paced match, full of short, explosive points, and with neither wasting time between points either.

Tsitsipas raced from the start-line, broke in the fifth game and held for 4-2. Serving at over 80 percent and often well over 130mph, there was no way through for Ebden, who was offered up not a break chance. Tsitsipas served out the set, 6-4.

But the Greek went off the boil at the start of the second set, and although he saved a break point in the second game, the relentless pressure from Ebden got its reward a couple of games later. Tsitsipas berated himself for each error, but could not break back: Ebden levelled the match, 6-3.

Now the younger man got his groove back, and broke in the second game. He was furious with himself again when Ebden returned the favour: back level at 2-2 But he got another break, and Edben tripped over in one of the extended rallies of volley, lob, counter volley, and had to call the physio to tape his ankle at 2-5 down.

The end, though, was in sight: Tsitsipas defied the culling of the young seeds in Dubai with a hard-won victory, 6-3, after an hour and three-quarters.

He then revealed what had turned things around between the gloom of his Rotterdam loss and his Marseille win.

“My dad was saying that we should go. I don’t know why he believed so much we could do well there. I remember telling him that I’m not in the form. If I’m going to go, I’m not going to go there to win the tournament. I don’t feel rested—well, rested enough to win such a tournament.

“I went, played a doubles match, played horrible. Come the next day, was very nervous if I’m going to play well in my singles match. Managed to get through that, as well: won.

“The rest went pretty OK… To my surprise, I was playing really well, something I didn’t expect. Then suddenly after winning my first match, I got so much motivation, I felt like I can do well.”

A story of two positives then: a father with total belief in his son; plus the advantage of a 20-year-old body that can recover much faster than most.

Perhaps what also helped his mental fortitude is that he has taken a break from his phone and social media. He put it thus:

“Yeah, instead of that I started having nice conversations with my friends, going for some good lunch, dinner with them, discussing different interesting topics instead of being on my phone. I think I was more social that week than ever.”

A lesson for all of us, then.

He next plays qualifier Egor Gerasimov, in the quarter topped by Kei Nishikori. And in the remaining match of the day, not resolved until 10 after midnight on a chilly Court 1, but watched by a good number of hardy souls to the soundtrack of the players’ party across the site, Borna Coric was embroiled in a 2hrs 50mins battle with Jiri Vesely to determine who would play Tomas Berdych in Round 2.

Berdych, a former finalist, but unseeded as he works back up the ranks following injury, survived his own third-set tie-break against the spirited lucky loser, Ilya Ivashka. And It would be same for Coric, who won his marathon, 7-6(4), in the decider.

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