Monte-Carlo Masters 2021: Third time lucky, as Tsitsipas beats Rublev to win first Masters crown
Tsitsipas rises to top of Race to Turin leaderboard; Rublev passes Federer to reach career-high No7 in ranks
For the second Masters in row, tennis was about to crown a new champion, and make no mistake, it has been a long time coming for the newer, younger generation to really get traction at the highest 1000 level.
Since Roger Federer won his first Masters in Hamburg in 2002, he has gone on, with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, to dominate the field: Federer 28 titles, Nadal 35 titles, Djokovic 36.
Andy Murray won his share, too, 14 of them. But in last month’s Miami Masters, none of the four was in the draw, and a new champion, Hubert Hurkacz, beat a new finalist, Jannik Sinner.
In the previous Masters tournament, in Paris last November, it was a third Masters title for Daniil Medvedev over another three-time Masters champion Alexander Zverev.
And come the latest Masters, the first on clay, there were two young players in pursuit of their first 1000 title. The key being, all the last six Masters finalists were age 24 or under at the time of their success.
But unlike Miami, Monte-Carlo boasted two of those Masters titans, two-time champion Djokovic and 11-time champion Nadal.
However, by the semi-finals, they and the defending champion, Fabio Fognini, were beaten. Unseeded Dan Evans put out not just Monte-Carlo’s 2019 runner up Dusan Lajovic and Miami champion Hurkacz but also Djokovic. Fellow non-seed, 22-year-old Casper Ruud, beat Fognini and also Buenos Aires winner Diego Schwartzman, and Marbella winner Pablo Carreno Busta.
Both, though, would lose out to two of the most consistent performers of the last year. And those two final men in Monte-Carlo had increasingly made a case for ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ they would win a Masters crown.
Since the start of the abbreviated 2020 season, only Djokovic had split Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas at the top of the match-win ranks: Rublev led with 65 wins, Tsitsipas had 50. And this year, Rublev had already accumulated 24 wins to Tsitsipas’s 21. What is more, the 23-year-old Russian, with four straight ATP500s to his name, beat Nadal in Monte-Carlo—something only five men had done in 76 matches on this magnificent clay court on the Mediterranean.
As for 22-year-old Tsitsipas, the current world No5, he had beaten Nadal in a five-set thriller at the Australian Open to reach the semis and had already reached two Masters finals—losing out to Nadal and Djokovic.
His was already a budding rivalry with Rublev: Six matches played, three wins apiece, one clay win apiece. No surprise either, perhaps, that both were former junior No1s.
Their seventh meeting would determine not only the newest member of the Masters ‘club’ but would also rise to the top of the Race to Turin leader-board—the ranking that will determine who contests the ATP Finals come November.
But while Rublev won their last match in Rotterdam, this venue favoured the tall Greek with the one-handed backhand, the one more comfortable shaking up the tactics and coming to the net. Tsitsipas lives and trains in Monte-Carlo, and his love of the place translated into seamless progress to the final without dropping a set. He had played only set in his quarter-final and needed just 69 minutes to beat Evans. Little wonder he said:
“I’m feeling energised. I still have plenty of gas and energy left in me.”
It certainly showed from beginning to end of this 71-minute final, a match in which Tsitsipas broke at the start of both sets, while Rublev piled up errors and looked increasingly fatigued as the match wore on.
The young Greek’s serving was on point, too, showing variety, spin, pace and penetration to deny Rublev barely a look on return. Tsitsipas dropped just four points behind his first serve, 24/28, through the match, and a quick break at the start of the first set was enough to seal it, 6-3. He broke again, 2-1, in the second and once more as Rublev served to save the match, 6-3.
The victory painted a very emotional picture for the Tsitsipas camp, with the young star embracing both parents and coach, and then dedicating the win to his first coach back home in Greece. He said:
“I had an unbelievable week in Monte-Carlo. I can’t describe my feelings right now. I am overwhelmed by so many different emotions and nostalgia. It is incredible that I am able to be in the position that I am. We both deserved to be in the final. We put on an amazing fight and an amazing show… I would consider it as the best week of my life so far.
“There were a lot of nerves coming into that match… There is extra stress and extra importance in the match that we had to play… and it is even more special doing it here on home soil in Monte-Carlo and doing it on clay, which is my favourite surface.”
A dejected Rublev afterwards admitted: “He was just better than me. If we talk deeply, of course, I mean, I feel tired after all the matches that I play, exhausted. But this is no excuse. He was just better than me, and that’s it.”
Tsitsipas meanwhile tried to dull the pain of losing for his rival:
“Andrey, I know it’s not easy, I understand, I’ve been in that position myself and I’d like to remind you what a great athlete you are and what incredible matches we’ve played in the past. I’m sure we’re going to continue playing matches like this, making the sport grow together.”
On that point at least, he was surely right.