Stefanos Tsitsipas is an athlete who is becoming increasingly difficult to define. At once, both an overachiever and an underachiever, both naturally charming and utterly obnoxious, one day a gritty, stubborn fighter on court, the next a paper tiger ripe to be upset. He no longer can be deemed the ‘future’ of a sport he once seemed destined to make his own, yet at just 24 years old, it’s entirely possible that his best days are still in front of him. Perennial dark horse, and maybe the one man in every draw you honestly feel could run the table and beat everyone in it, or lose in round one to the world no. 116. His is a portrait is in constant flux, vacillating violently with such consistency and intensity that even Dr. Jekyll must surely be considering serving him a cease-and-desist letter. Tournament-to-tournament, match-to-match, sometimes point-to-point, the Tsitsipas Experience is unlike any other in the sport today.
Even attempting to refine the Tsitsipas story into a one-season chapter proves exceptionally difficult. He both failed to break through over the established elite at major level and came up second best against the standouts of the generation behind him with concerning regularity (notably going a combined 0-4 against the teenage tandem of Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune). Yet he somehow topped the leaderboard in total wins over the entire 2022 season (in no short way attributable to a his Iron man-like durability) and ultimately lost no ground his year end ranking, settling at world number 4, the exact same spot he found himself in at the conclusion of the season in 2021.
His lone title at 1000 level or above was a successful title defense, doubling his title tally at the Monte Carlo Masters. While he was unable to break through at any other major tournament, his last two matches at his closest effort, a runner up result as the Cincinnati Masters in August, could really be described as perfect microcosm for his entire career; a cathartic triumph in the semi final over his arch nemesis (at then-world number one), Daniil Medvedev, followed by a pancake-flat straight sets defeat in the final to then-152nd ranked Borna Coric. Those two matches were played only 24 hours apart, and unless my eyes deceive me, it’s the same man competing in them. Yet the contrast in the performances was unavoidably stark and the perfect piece of proof of how rapidly Tsitsipas’ form can suddenly flip.
Tsitstipas’ inconsistent performances between the tram lines in 2022 were matched by a series of characteristically bizarre episodes both on-court and off, the jewel of his chaotic crown being his unadulterated circus of a match with Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon. A perfect storm of petulance which had to have drawn never before seen numbers on the unofficial John McEnroe Tennis Brat scaleTM, the two cantankerous stars committed just about every single sin known to the sport on its most hallowed ground, Wimbledon’s Centre Court, in a nearly four-hour expletive laden mess for which both men where subsequently fined.
But that was far from an isolated incident, as Tsitsipas has also begun to garner a reputation for seemingly attempting to maim (as much as one can with a soft, fuzzy tennis ball) his opponents with ‘bodyshots’, a self-explanatory, and fairly controversial tactic depending on its implementation. The incident against Alcaraz (0:39 mark) in Barcelona could be justified as a strategic bodyshot in a desperate attempt to save a point; the examples against Kyrgios (9:18 mark) and Jack Draper… harder to explain away so naively. His uncomfortably public blowouts with his coach/manager/father/enabler, Apostolos, are only becoming more frequent and more difficult to watch. And while we were thankfully free of more toilet-related controversy in 2022, he is continuing to ‘put his foot in it’ online with, *ahem*, ill-advised sharing of personal views. Yes, it’s probably fair to say Tsitsipas did little to endear himself to those he had turned off in years past.
But when all is right in the weird world of Stefanos, the tennis he is able to produce is some of the most captivating and inspiring of any player on tour. His forehand, often identified by his own peers as one of the finest in the sport today, only grows in stature as he continues to fill out his once wiry frame. His footwork remains exceptional for a man of his size; few shots in the game are as aesthetically pleasing as when he glides across to the ad-court onto a thunderous inside-in forehand. Yes, the clunky, mechanical backhand remains an eyesore, a Frankenstein’s Monster version of the shot many of the old school greats made a form of high art. But he continues to find ways to shield it by increasing his output at the net, where his poise and touch continues to improve.
Couple all of that with the fact that, head-to-toe, the guy has always looked the part of a tennis megastar and when he gets the bit between his teeth, his competitive energy is undeniably infectious. In short, for all the antics and baggage the man brings along with him, it’s difficult not to get swept up in his swell when everything is clicking.
And they certainly have been to start the new season. It would appear Tsitsipas has started his season at the United Cup with his church shoes double knotted and as such, he has already set about exercising some demons from years past. An epic, two and half hour rollercoaster ride of revenge over Coric punctuated a fantastic personal week for the Greek while representing his home nation in the new mixed team competition. Finishing undefeated in both singles and mixed doubles play (alongside his friend and similarly frustrating female compatriot, Maria Sakkari), one couldn’t have asked for a more positive season-opening salvo.
The momentum has been built, and Tsitsipas’ record down-under has always been strong, with maybe his two greatest performances coming on Melbourne Park’s Rod Laver Arena; a stunning fourth round upset over then-two-time defending champion Roger Federer in 2019, and an even more stunning two-sets-to-love-down comeback classic in his quarter final against Rafael Nadal in 2021. With three semi final appearances already on his Australian Open resume, there’s no reason why as the 3rd seed (one bump up from his ranking in lieu of the absence of Alcaraz), he shouldn’t be expecting to at least equal that result here.
Regardless of your personal tolerance for his brand, in a sport often dominated by ‘alter boy’ personality types, Tsitsipas over the years has, at the very least, provided his proponents and detractors with plenty to discuss beyond his forehands (very good!) and backhands (often very bad!). It’s nigh-on impossible to predict the trajectory of the no-longer-ingenue, not-quite-veteran in 2023, so its likely a fools errand to try at this stage. Nothing is off the table; this could absolutely be the year he shatters the glass ceiling and takes the spot he has been eyeing at the top of the game since 2019. Or it could just as realisitically be the year he gets shoved out of his cushy top five spot usurped by the younger, meaner, more hungry chasing field.
Australia has always proved welcome territory, with Melbourne’s passionate local Greek community providing a ‘home-away-from-home’ environment. He has been able to capitalise on that the past, and with both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal now surely entering the final stages of their careers, maybe the 2023 Australian Open will finally, at long last, be the site of Tsitsipas’ coronation (he would vault to world number one with a title here). The irony is, regardless of his result in Melbourne, smart money would likely have him finishing 2023 exactly how he finished the last two years; trenched in that 3-5 ranking spot, continuing to give the tennis world a headache trying to keep up with his ever-changing status in the game.
Wherever we end up and however we get there, one this is almost certain; for fans and critics alike, the Tsitsipas Experience is always one worth the price of admission. That is, if you have the stomach for it.