Queen’s 2019: Stefanos Tsitsipas has high hopes for grass – and also for London’s O2
“I really hope I leave grass courts with great memories and moments”
He has been perhaps the biggest and brightest star to burst on the men’s tennis scene in the last year. And Stefanos Tsitsipas, top seed at the Fever-tree Championships this week, is very comfortable in his leading role.
Not that he is looking too far ahead as he makes the transition to grass this week:
“Yes, I think it is the first time as top seed at a 500 event. But I don’t think about it. I don’t even watch the draws, I don’t know who is in my part of the draw, I don’t even know who is No2. I just have to play, not think who is No1 or No2, or No3.
“If you think about it too much—‘I’m the one who is favourite, I’m the one who everyone expects to win’—then you become lazy. You expect everything to come easier to you. I have to play the way I always play.”
Such is the maturity, perspective and intelligence that the tall, blond 20-year-old adds to the equation. For he not only brings an energetic, attacking, all-court style of play to bear against his opponents, he brings the focus, work ethic and self-belief that underpin the success of great players.
And while it may be premature to classify Tsitsipas as a great player, he surely has the makings of one.
On paper, he is still among what the professional tour classifies as the ‘Next Generation’, those aged 21 and under. But last year, he swept through the Milan NextGen field while still just 19 and already ranked 15. It was his second title in a year that he had started as world No91, in a year that he began playing qualifying rounds and Challengers. It was also the year he made the final in Barcelona, the fourth round at Wimbledon, and the final of the Toronto Masters—beating four top-10 players including Novak Djokovic.
This year, he has gone from strength to strength, first reaching the semis of the Australian Open via a win over Roger Federer, before winning in Marseille, making the final in Dubai, and winning Estoril. He beat Rafael Nadal to reach another Masters final in Madrid, got to the semis in Rome, and the fourth round at Roland Garros, meanwhile breaking the top 10 to top out at a current No6.
And now he plays his first Queen’s draw as the top seed at a 500 event for the first time. But a twinkle came to his eye when asked about his impressions of London, and what he hoped to see while he is here:
“I’ve seen everything in London—but I would love to see myself play at the O2 Arena in November. That’s not now, that’s something I want to see in London.” And he laughed.
It is, of course, no laughing matter, because he not only tops the NextGen Race by a country mile, he also sits fifth in the Race to London, the ATP Finals. So he is lined up already to reach the O2, and his case may be strengthened as his self-confessed favourite surface stretches out before him.
For he has a game suited to grass, and certainly the desire win, whatever the surface. Of his relationship with the green stuff, he explained:
“You have to stay lower, have faster anticipation—not necessarily play extreme tennis, you have to play clean, come to the net, have to concentrate on other things when you play instead of trying to spin the ball a lot or open the court. You have to stay low, come to the net, serve well… It is a matter of right decisions and concentration levels, because everything is very fast on grass.
“I have great memories of grass. I won the Wimbledon doubles here as juniors, was close to singles, made the fourth round last year. My relationship with grass is pretty good.”
Even so, he remained cautious. He did, after all, lose in the first round of s-Hertogenbosch last week, though that match came hot on the heels of a gruelling five-hour match against Stan Wawrinka in Paris, which was his sixth straight week of competition, 23 matches in around 40 days.
He plays Briton Kyle Edmund in his opener at Queen’s, a first-time meeting, and Edmund asserted that he was probably the man with the fewer expectations after an injury-disrupted season. But Tstisipas was quick to quell that view.
“Well I haven’t really shown yet anything on grass, in my opinion. I had pretty good results on clay and hard courts before grass, so on those two surfaces I’ve done pretty well this year. It can always be tricky when there are different surfaces to adapt to. I only had one match last week, so it might take a while to adjust to those new conditions—which I haven’t played for almost a year now.”
Which is true, of course, of almost every player here. But the Greek is not one for false modesty, nor is he one to lack ambition. He went on:
“I want to do much better than the fourth round from last year. I know it’s going to take something more, something more difficult to overcome. Players know me, know what to expect, so I really hope I leave grass courts with great memories and moments.”
He was then confronted with the opinion that the favourites for the Wimbledon title this year are the men who have dominated since Federer began his march to eight titles in 2003. Since then, Nadal and Andy Murray have each won twice, and Djokovic three times. And while Murray is not playing in the singles draw this year as he continues his return from major hip surgery, it is he who suggested the trophy would end up in familiar hands again this year.
Not so fast, was the Tsitsipas response—though less boldly stated:
“I would love to see something different this year. Hopefully [he smiled again], it can be me.
“But I think it’s good for the sport to have a little bit of variety, boring to see those guys win all the time.
“[But] we are responsible as well, the new generation, to work hard and believe in ourselves and come up with something new, our best games to beat those guys. It’s all a matter of character, feeling responsible for what we’re doing around the court. Some don’t want to take that bigger responsibility of going out and winning and saying ‘I’m gonna overcome all those difficulties, beat those guys.’
“I feel like I can beat them. If the younger generation thinks positively, I think we can achieve a lot of things. I hope at Wimbledon this will happen.”
Thus far, in his short but sparkling career, he has wins over Nadal on clay, Federer and Djokovic on hard courts, plus Dominic Thiem, Karen Khachanov, Kevin Anderson, Alexander Zverev, and Fabio Fognini. And that means, in the 18 months since rising from 91 to No6, he has beaten every current member of the top 10 except Kei Nishikori, and some of them more than once.
He has, in short, good reason to be bullish. But first things first: Edmund on the Briton’s home soil may be first in line, but strewn through the draw are three Major champions in Juan Martin del Potro, Wawrinka and defending Queen’s champion Marin Cilic. And, incidentally, that No2 seed is Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson.
So come back in a week’s time to see how the story has unfolded…