Crossroads for Stefanos Tsitsipas

Stefanos Tsitsipas in action at the ATP Cincinnati Masters.

It has been a strange week for Stefanos Tsitsipas at the US Open.

In three rounds of tennis, Tsitsipas played two five-set blockbusters lasting over four hours each, sandwiched by a four setter. The way those matches played out and ultimate defeat to Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz leaves Tsitsipas at an undoubted crossroads.

Crossroads because 2021 started with so much promise for Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas came from two sets down in the quarterfinal of the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal. He lost fairly easily in the semifinal against Medvedev but had a very good clay court season. Where he won Monte Carlo and held match point against Nadal in Barcelona, eventually losing out. Tsitsipas held a handy lead against Djokovic in the quarterfinals of Rome but lost there as well.  Tsitsipas won Lyon and had a great French Open, culminating in a final where it looked like his dreams would be realised. A commanding two sets lead against Novak Djokovic was not enough; Djokovic came roaring back as Tsitsipas visibly wilted, an extremely painful defeat.

Which is where the problems started for Tsitsipas. He has not recovered from the French Open final defeat. Tsitsipas would have been the first of the “NextGen” players to claim a Grand Slam title. The youngest Grand Slam debut winner since Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open. Victory at the French Open would also given Tsitsipas impetus to attack the World #1 ranking.

Tsitsipas bombed out of the first round of Wimbledon against Francis Tiafoe. An unsuccessful Olympic campaign was followed by a surprising defeat in the semifinals of Montreal to Reilly Opelka. An even more surprising defeat occurred in the semifinals of Cincinnati.  Tsitsipas lost to Alexander Zverev despite being two breaks up in the third set! The toilet break controversy started to breed here. Tsitsipas disappeared for a full eight minutes at the end of the first set. Then he wanted to go off at the end of the second set. The umpire warned him extended departure would lead to point penalties and ultimate default.

All this meant Tsitsipas did not go into this US Open in the best frame of mind. One of the favorites for the tournament but something was not right from the get go. Andy Murray’s carry on and criticisms during their first round encounter was pretty unedifying. To Tsitsipas’ credit, he ignored Murray’s protestations but the crowd reaction to his toilet breaks must be getting to him even if he doesn’t show it. Murray said he lost respect for Tsitsipas in his press conference which to be frank is not nice to hear.

This did not deter Tsitsipas, though. Another seven minute toilet break against Mannarino in the next match prompted Mannarino to call for a rule change. The New York crowd now seemed to be onto Tsitsipas’ “little schemes” when it comes to changing his apparel. The third match was the most extraordinary match against Carlos Alcaraz of Spain. Alcaraz hit winners as if they were going out of fashion, 61 in total. Tsitsipas was rocked but steadied himself to enough to level the match. Then go two breaks up in the third set, but contrived to throw that away. By now after the customary long break to a chorus of boos, Tsitsipas came out swinging taking the fourth set 6-0. This did not prove to be the impetus Tsitsipas needed to finish the 18-year-old, going down in a fifth set tiebreak.

With a clean winner by Alcaraz on his third match point, that was that for Tsitsipas and Grand Slam tennis in 2021. A journey to leave anyone depressed, Tsitsipas’ frailties technically and mentally were exposed for the world to see. Tsitsipas had problems closing out sets, problems closing out matches and problems closing out tournaments. Baffling as Tsitsipas has won the most matches this year on the ATP tour.

Time maybe for Tsitsipas to look at himself in the mirror and make some difficult choices for the good of his career.

Tsitsipas would see that in Carlos Alcaraz’s corner is Juan Carlos Ferrero. An ex World #1 and French Open champion in 2003. Meanwhile, in Tsitsipas’ corner are his dad and Patrick Moratoglou. Neither man has any experience of having played the game at the top level.  Moratoglou coached Serena Williams to great success, but Williams was already a great player with an amazing serve. And women’s’ tennis is a different animal to men’s tennis.

A number of technical flaws rears its ugly heads in pressure situations. Tsitsipas’ serve is not a fluid motion and can go off. Tsitsipas also has problems on the backhand return and backhand side, often dropping the ball midcourt, especially the slice. We have also seen recently that Tsitsipas has a tendency to “shank” the ball when he would least want it. His volleying skills off low balls were really tested against Alcaraz. Tsitsipas also has issues with passing shots. Overall they are not up to scratch, a lack of composure leads to not good execution and placement.

These criticisms sound bleak but Tsitsipas has a lot going for him as well, so these problems are not insurmountable. But when you have issues everyone can see, there are two ways to go. Plateau out and decline, or work hard to improve.

Tsitsipas wants to improve, no question about that but must ask himself how, and should come up with one answer. Make the break and recruit and ex top professional to help take him to the next level.

Boris Becker would love to work with a player with a single hand backhand and aggressive game.  Magnus Norman helped transform Stanislaus Warwinka from a journeyman top 30 player to multiple grand slam champion. Andy Murray’s career was in grave danger of going nowhere before he started working with Ivan Lendl in 2012. In 1994, Brad Gilbert gave Andre Agassi a dossier of where to improve and how to target his opponents’ weaknesses. This transformed Agassi into a world number 1 and two time major champion within twelve months.

These are examples of players with great potential who hired an ex top pro as coach and became even better. Is Tsitsipas ready to listen to someone who has been there and done it?  A former pro that would give him some home truths and demand a new level of professionalism and commitment. In women’s tennis, when your dad is your coach, it often turns into drama which is ultimately not good in the long run. The same could be said for Tsitsipas and his long term prospects.

This is Stefanos Tsitsipas’ crossroads. In the close season it will be interesting to see which direction Tsitsipas takes for the next step of his career.

Main Photo from Getty.


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