It was truly an incredible moment for 20 year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. It had gone into the net. The ball had actually gone into the net. The result? Tsitsipas had beaten Rafael Nadal. On clay. In Spain.
Now, huge wins over Big Three players are not totally foreign to the young Greek star. He had beaten Novak Djokovic in Toronto last year, and Roger Federer at the Australian Open this year. However, beating Nadal on clay is a different animal–a test of a player’s mental willpower and desire to compete. A total examination of a player’s game, because if there is ever a time when a weakness will be exposed, it’s against Nadal on clay.
And while Tsitsipas lost to Novak Djokovic in the final, 6-3 6-4, it was apparent that the Greek would be a force for the years to come.
But, from the perspective of the future of tennis, it is important to look back to the quarterfinal stage. Tsitsipas took on 22-year-old Alexander Zverev, a player who has been widely hailed as the future of tennis. While Zverev had won the first meeting in Washington last year, Tsitsipas got his revenge when he beat Zverev in a tight three-setter at the Canadian Masters 1000 event shortly thereafter. Zverev made headlines after that match, saying, “Today was an absolutely pathetic match.”
Zverev continued by saying, in a completely deadpan tone, “…I don’t think even think he played well.”
Tsitsipas in response to Zverev’s remarks, said, “I would say I played more clever this time,” and later said regarding his relationship with Zverev, “The relationship is ok.”
So, there was clearly a lot at stake when these two players met in Madrid last week. They obviously weren’t friends. Zverev visibly was frustrated with how he had played against Tsitsipas in their last meeting, and with Tsitsipas shooting up the rankings, it was time for Zverev to defend his turf at the top.
But things didn’t work out that way for Zverev. Despite a spirited comeback in the second set from the young German, Tsitsipas won the match 7-5 3-6 6-2. Tsitsipas was the more solid player. He served well, had a good balance between margin and power on his groundstrokes, and was very good when moving forward to the net.
Rankings, head-to-head, and more
This win for Tsitsipas, combined with his massive victory over Nadal, leads to an interesting question: Has Stefanos taken over the head of the table for the NextGen players? While Zverev is still ahead in the ATP rankings, at the No. 5 position compared to No. 7 for the Greek, in the ATP Race, it’s another story. In the race to make the ATP Finals in London, Tsitsipas sits at No. 4, while Zverev is at No. 16.
At the Majors, Tsitsipas, despite only playing in the main draw of 7 Grand Slams, has already a better result than Zverev’s best Slam result. And this is despite Zverev playing in 15 Grand Slam main draws. Tsitsipas has this year’s Australian Open semifinal performance, which includes a four-set win over Roger Federer.
Zverev made the French Open quarterfinals last year, but in a tournament where every match was a battle. In fact, Zverev was taken to five sets by three straight opponents before flaming out in a disappointing quarterfinal against Dominic Thiem, only winning seven games in three sets.
So, Tsitsipas leads the head to head 2-1 has a better Grand Slam performance, this means that he has overtaken Zverev, right? Plus, he beat Nadal on clay, whereas Zverev has never beaten Nadal, even on hard court! I don’t think it is that simple. In terms of titles won, while Tsitsipas is younger, Zverev has 10 titles to three titles for Tsitsipas.
Tsitsipas has never won a title above the ATP 250 level, whereas Zverev has six titles above the ATP 250 level. Stefanos has two Masters 1000 runner-up appearances, while Zverev has three Masters 1000 titles, in addition to two Masters 1000 runner-up appearances.
And there has been no mention yet of Zverev’s ATP Finals win last year, where he beat Federer and Djokovic in succession to win the title! When Tsitsipas attempted to beat Nadal and Djokovic in success in Madrid last week, he came up short. It’s hard to believe that only last season Zverev was winning both Madrid and the ATP Finals, whereas Tsitsipas was just breaking out on tour, winning his first title.
And maybe that’s a lesson about jumping to conclusions and about sustainability of success on the demanding tennis circuit. Tsitsipas is younger than Zverev, has been on tour for much less time, and in terms of overall achievements, the Greek is far, far below the German.
Stefanos Tsitsipas not quite there yet
It’s amazing to think about, but Alexander Zverev made his breakthrough on tour with a semifinal at the ATP 500 event in Hamburg in 2014. That’s a long time ago. Stefanos Tsitsipas’ first ATP semifinal was towards the very end of the 2017 season and his first ATP 500 semifinal was last summer! Zverev has ended the season in the top 25 for three straight seasons before 2019, whereas last year was the first year that Tsitsipas ended the season in the top 25. Against the Big 3 in finals at the ATP level, Tsitsipas is 0-4 and is 0-8 in sets. Against the Big 3 in finals at the ATP level, Zverev is 3-2 and 7-4 in sets.
Yes, of course Tsitsipas is younger, so a lot of these numbers can be attributed to that. That, however, is part of the point. While Stefanos Tsitsipas has certainly been very impressive in his young career, he hasn’t yet shown the ability to consistently produce high-quality results, year-in and year-out. And yes, that is because he just hasn’t been around that long. At the same time, because he hasn’t been around that long, there is no guarantee that he will continue to be towards the top of the game. The expectation is that he will be a top player for years to come, but that means he has to keep producing high-quality results.
And when it comes to high-quality results, as of right now, Zverev has his number.
And because of that, Alexander Zverev is still at the head of the NextGen players’ table.
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