When Stefanos Tsitsipas won the deciding third set tie-break of the Nitto ATP Finals in London on Sunday 17 November, he collapsed to his knees in exhaustion, elation and, above all, incredulity. It capped a stunning 2019 for the 21-year-old, who’s rise to the summit of men’s tennis has been a whirlwind fairy tale beyond the realms of his own belief. Yet for those watching Tsitsipas play, the success has been more than plausible.
The ATP Finals is the season-ending tournament held annually each November at the O2 Arena in London, consisting of the top eight men’s singles players on the ATP circuit. In the eyes of some a showcase event, for the best players in the game the competition represents far more than its substantial prize fund; that is, the opportunity to stake their claim as ‘the best of the best’.
For those watching Tsitsipas play, the success has been more than plausible
Tsitsipas came into the final on the back of a comprehensive two set semi-final victory over Roger Federer, a man 18 years his elder who also holds the record for most ATP Finals titles, with six wins. In the group stages, he defeated Rafael Nadal, world number one and owner of 19 Grand Slam finals. If anybody could match this form it would only be his final opponent, Dominic Thiem. The 26-year-old Austrian had himself defeated Federer and Novak Djokovic en route to the final.
Thiem even went a set up in the match. The players battled ferociously, momentum swung relentlessly, but nothing was to stop the dogged, yet enduringly graceful Tsitsipas from triumphing in the longest O2 final to date. Friends, and warm up partners in years gone by, the Greek and the Austrian held a long embrace at the game’s end: indicative of their mutual respect.
Though separated by five years of age and experience,what bonds Tsitsipas and Thiem is their shared status as two of tennis’ rising stars. For Thiem this journey has perhaps been a little problematic. Tipped as the heir to Rafael Nadal’s clay court throne for a number of years now, the Austrian has struggled to make a telling impact at the slams, although 2019 has been his best year on tour to date, with a first Masters 1000 victory and a second successive Roland Garros runners’ up plate.
The Greek and the Austrian held a long embrace at the game’s end
Perhaps, then, it would have been all the tougher to lose to the new kid on the block. The youngest winner of the ATP Finals since 2001, Tsitsipas has already been tipped by Tim Henman as a “massive star of the future”, and seems set to rival Thiem for years to come. Certainly, talent is one thing that the 21-year-old does not lack, but nor is self-confidence. “I believe I’m really close to being crowned a Grand Slam champion,” he announced after the game, and I doubt many would disagree.
But do he and his contemporary starlets – Zverev and Medvedev among others – have the capacity to overthrow the ‘Big Three’ regime that has gripped men’s tennis for so long now? 4 of the 8 players at the 2019 ATP Finals were aged 23 or under, and yet Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have won the past 12 Grand Slam titles, and a combined 55 across their careers. Arguably the best three men’s tennis players of all-time, it has been nothing short of breath-taking watching them play over the last fifteen or so years, but one wonders whether now is the time for these veterans to be truly challenged in the majors.
The youngest winner of the ATP Finals since 2001
I would argue that their persistent popularity with the crowds (at least in the case of Rafa and Roger) has been a significant factor in maintaining this monopoly on the slams. For Nadal, Paris is home, for Federer, Wimbledon is a fortress – their respective favoured surfaces, but also the venues where the crowds hold for them the greatest adulation. Interesting, then, to see the way in which the O2 Arena clapped and screamed and chanted for Tsitsipas, this relative unknown, and the way that he reciprocated this love. With a beaming smile, he addressed the crowd after the game, “I have never received so much support. Never! Honestly, I owe it all to you.”
So much about the Greek seems to emulate Federer, from his flowing locks and personable demeanour to his elegant game style and increasingly calm composure on court. To add to this, Tsitsipas has a YouTube channel with over 160,000 subscribers, and streamed live on Monday – the day after his O2 triumph – to answer questions from his fans. The modern player in every regard, it seems, the young man’s charm and ability will take him far.
So much about the Greek seems to emulate Federer
Now number six in the world, Stefanos Tsitsipas has the potential to go right to the very top of men’s tennis.
Image by Rob Keating via Wikimedia Commons