For the second consecutive year at the Rogers Cup, a teenager with a one-handed backhand is the surprise of the tournament.
Last year in Montreal, it was 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who upset Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to a shocker of a run to the semis.
This year in Toronto, it is Stefanos Tsitsipas’s turn to shine.
The 19-year-old from Greece (he turns 20 on Sunday, the day of the Rogers Cup final) has now upset three consecutive top-10 players in his own run to the semis.
Tsitsipas is youngest to defeat three top-10 players in a single tournament since Rafael Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2006.
First came No. 8 Dominic Thiem, who didn’t look either fresh nor ready for the hard courts. On Thursday, Tsitsipas upset No. 10 Novak Djokovic in their first career meeting.
And on Friday, he pulled victory out of the jaws of near-certain defeat in upsetting 21-year-old Alexander Zverev, the world No. 3 who routined Tsitsipas in straight sets last week on his way to the title at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.
Zverev seemed ready to do it again. He led 6-3, 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3 in that second set.
And then, it all unraveled. The end result was a 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4 win for the younger man.
“I was just walking the ball back and making him play every single ball. And at that moment, he wasn’t into it. He starts missing. And he got tighter, I think. He understood that’s his chance to close the match,” Tsitsipas said. “And I just did things right and, yeah, I broke him. That’s how you break, if you play things right and you play clever. And I did that, and I was back in the match again.”
As he played with house money, Tsitsipas just hung around until it was definitely, indubitably over and the two shook hands. His more-accomplished opponent did not.
Hang in, and good things can happen
The world No. 2 from Germany had two match points in the second-set tiebreak. And he was up a break in the third set, as well. And after he coughed that up, it was as though his mind just left the court. Beyond one angry firing of the racquet that was betraying him, it was almost as though he was merely a bystander observing his own demise.
He went 1-for-9 on break points in that third set, after going 4-for-5 in the first two.
Notably, Tsitsipas earned just four break points over nearly 2 1/2 hours. But he made good on all of them even if his own first-serve percentage never went over 50 per cent in any of the three sets.
A Challenge left undone
A case in point: as Zverev served to stay in the match at 4-5, leading the game 30-15, he crushed an inside-out forehand that landed plumb on the sideline.
Except the linesperson called it out. And Zverev didn’t even question it. He barely even reacted.
Within a matter of moments, he tried a best-left-undone serve and volley. And then on match point, Zverev double-faulted. Badly. You could see that coming a mile away.
Tsitsipas also had his spidey senses tingling.
“Well, yeah, to be honest with you, I kind of suspected before he even start his motion that there’s going to be a chance for me to close it straight away. And I was not expecting a double fault, but I was at least expecting something more in my terms, let’s say,” he said.
Tsitsipas appeared stunned with it was over, and with good reason. He was absolutely down and out. And suddenly he was holding his arms up in the air in victory, and looking ahead to his first Masters 1000-level semifinal against No. 4 seed Kevin Anderson on Saturday.
“Pathetic”, said Zverev
Zverev may have come into the press conference room a little too hastily, because he’ll probably get some heat for his … honesty.
He thought they were both horsebleep.
“I don’t think today he played that well. I think the match was absolutely pathetic on all levels. You know, returning, he started to return. I mean, he was serving 125 (mph) to my backhand, and I was missing them. That does not happen,” Zverev said. “I mean, I’m very honest with you guys. I always say when the opponent play(s) better. I’m probably one of the most honest guys on tour. Today was a pathetic match from -– I don’t even think he played well.
“He started putting some balls into the court. I think before he was playing really bad. And I actually thought I was playing bad the whole match,” Zverev added. “So I lost a little bit of concentration. I lost a little bit of rhythm, but it wasn’t – I mean, even if I would have won, it wasn’t a good match.”
Zverev wasn’t necessarily wrong, even if the delivery left a little to be desired.
Tsitsipas had clearly been tipped off about that comment before coming into press nearly 90 minutes later. So he had his response ready.
“I’m working with a sports psychologist that’s really good. And he told me something, and I remember it since like four or five years. That a good player can be seen in his bad day. And I completely agree with that. The level of tennis today, in my opinion, was not the highest. It was all right. People seemed to love it, love the show and everything,” Tsitsipas said.
But I played – I would say I played okay. He seemed … I don’t know. The conditions are different here. So it’s really tough for me to compare with Washington. Because Washington, you know, with the conditions and everything was completely different. Speed, surface, it was slightly faster there,” he added. “So I would say I played more clever this time. I kind of fooled him when I was on the court and did some things that he didn’t expect me to do. And I changed my plan since last week. And as I said, I got lots of experience last week and managed to pull it out today in the match.”
It was a dramatic match because of the turnaround in fortunes. And it was an attractive matchup because it involved two of the best young talents in the game. But from a tennis perspective, it left a lot on the table.
The Geman felt he should have won it 6-3, 6-3. And he also felt that the third set should probably also have been 6-3.
Except, it wasn’t. And Tsitsipas, who began the 2018 season ranked No. 91, will jump into the top 20 on Monday for the first time. If he can beat Anderson on Saturday, he would jump into the top 15.
On to Cincinnati
By failing to defend the title he earned last year in Montreal, Zverev will drop a spot in the rankings, to No. 4.
And that will allow del Potro, who did come to Toronto but withdrew before the event started with pain in right wrist – a worrisome development, given his history – will move to No. 3 for the first time in his star-crossed career.
The lanky Zverev, who doesn’t yet have the physical maturity he’ll enjoy a few years down the road, has played a lot of tennis over the last week. The run to the D.C. title was five singles wins plus a doubles match. The conditions were brutal, and he also had to play his big brother Mischa for the first time in what was an emotional affair for the entire family.
In Toronto, more heat, rain, humidity and late nights, and three more singles matches. So the defeat, as tough as it might be to swallow, might have a silver lining.
“Look, at the end of the day, I played a lot of matches and physically I’m quite tired,” he said. “So I’m actually quite happy to have few days off before another Masters (in Cincinnati, another event where heat and humidity are on the order of play) and then a Grand Slam (at the US Open).”
(Screenshots from TennisTV)