High Stakes

Losing to Novak Djokovic from two sets up at the 2021 Roland-Garros tournament is a strange thing to have in common with a peer. That was something Stefanos Tsitsipas shared with Lorenzo Musetti, though, as they stepped on court for their first-rounder yesterday.

Those matches were different — Musetti crumbled physically almost immediately after winning the second set against Djokovic. Indeed, he didn’t finish the match. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, stayed relatively competitive, forcing Djokovic to serve out the match in a tough deuce game. The matches weren’t totally dissimilar, though. In both cases, once Djokovic found his form, he stormed through the last three sets without facing a break point.

In beating Musetti from two sets down, Tsitsipas kept his bid for a Roland-Garros title alive. The match was strange. Musetti and Tsitsipas are cut from the same cloth. Though their one-handed backhands get significant attention, their forehands are their preferred weapon. They each have curly hair, Musetti’s restrained by a backwards cap, Tsitsipas’s by a headband. My mom said they looked like surfer boys. They are the kind of players who make commentators want to call drop shot winners “luscious” instead of “good”.

Neither player touched the sky — the first set was tense and tumultuous, then Tsitsipas lost his game in the second set and Musetti lost his shortly afterwards. It never came back. Tsitsipas’s floor, his B or C level, is high enough on clay that Musetti had no chance once his shots deserted him. The headline will be that Tsitsipas fell into a two-sets-to-zero hole, though.

When you get to the top, as Tsitsipas has, people expect you to win practically every match. Iga Świątek is in that phase right now, and is actually delivering — she’s won 29 matches in a row; when she will lose again is anybody’s guess. Tsitsipas might not be at that level, but he’s been firmly entrenched in the top five for a while. People have gotten used to his consistently strong results, especially on clay. He was a set away from winning Roland-Garros last year.

It was no surprise to me that Tsitsipas didn’t look elated after the win. His immediate reaction read of relief and even a bit of frustration. It was a difficult first-rounder, but the small ‘4’ next to his name on the scoreboard declared that if he lost to anyone besides Djokovic, Medvedev, or Zverev, he was underperforming (let the mention of Medvedev and Zverev rather than Alcaraz and Nadal be a plea for surface-specific seeding). There was no option but to win. During the match, Tsitsipas was fighting for his life, but afterwards, he had merely done what was expected of him.

Last year in Paris, Tsitsipas didn’t lose a set until the third round, then didn’t lose another one until midway through his semifinal. He was coming off the best clay-court season of his life. He won Monte-Carlo for his first Masters 1000 title. He made the final in Barcelona and almost ripped the rug out from under Rafael Nadal (on a court named after the guy, no less) after being down championship points in the second set. In Rome, he came within inches of putting away Novak Djokovic on several occasions, but failed to win enough of the big points. Even so, he had come damn close to beating the best two players in the world, and had easily established his superiority over everyone else. It was no surprise he did so well at Roland-Garros.

This year feels different. Tsitsipas defended his Monte-Carlo title. Hell, he even made the Rome final, whereas he lost in the quarters last year. But he hasn’t been playing that well, at least not by his lofty standards. He almost lost to Diego Schwartzman in Monte-Carlo after leading 6-2, 5-3. He was no match for Carlos Alcaraz in Barcelona. He lost to Zverev in Madrid. In Rome, he was about to beat Grigor Dimitrov, then suddenly and inexplicably lost a long string of points and ended up having to save match point to get over the line.

His results have still been great on the whole, but he doesn’t look imposing. He is playing like someone trying to cling on rather than someone trying to climb. I spent much of his match today trying to analyze his demeanor — he was really calm, even as he lost the second set. I wondered if that was because he still felt confident or because he wasn’t fully engaged. The fact that he came back to win certainly hints at the former, but I started to think about Tsitsipas’s year in general. Things have been rough: he got elbow surgery at the end of last year, likely killing his usual preparation. His title in Monte-Carlo was a high point, but even there, it didn’t seem like he was playing his best tennis. Tsitsipas is more than capable of beating most players without his A game, but better players will readily punish his B game. Medvedev beat him comfortably at the Australian Open, Alcaraz beat him twice in the span of three weeks, Djokovic bageled him in the first set of the Rome final.

To me, all of this is symptomatic of a larger issue. What, I’m not sure — maybe a lack of confidence, maybe a lingering elbow problem, maybe just a small dip in form. His results do seem to be affected, though. Considering his whole body of work, he has not improved from last year (in 2021, he also made the Australian Open semifinals, won Monte-Carlo, and did well across the board at the clay-court events). Yes, the bar is very high now, but it has not moved for a little while.

Tsitsipas’s win over Musetti today was potentially crucial. It keeps him alive in a Roland-Garros in which Djokovic, Nadal, and Alcaraz are on the other side of the draw. Considering his clay-court pedigree, another trip to the final seems more than possible. But he’s been without his best stuff for some time. He will need more help than a good draw to improve upon last year’s performance.

Musetti’s problems, besides not being at Tsitsipas’s level in general, are greater. This is the second year in a row he has faded badly after winning the second set of a best-of-five match on clay. It was as if he thought the finish line lay right after the second set. When the match became a scrap, Musetti fought, but his high level had disappeared and he couldn’t get it back. The loss to Djokovic last year was a bit uncomfortable in the end — Musetti’s early tennis was outstanding, but he could barely win a point after the second set, and his retiring a mere two games from the end of the match didn’t come off well. That he has to learn the importance of physical endurance and intensity again, even after the ordeal last year, is not a great sign.

There’s reason to be optimistic for both guys. Musetti is a fantastic shotmaker; when the head catches up to the groundstrokes, he will be a threat. Tsitsipas will probably progress deep into the draw. His next match is against Zdeněk Kolář, who is ranked 134th in the world. Still, I came away from the match feeling a bit empty, and I sense neither Musetti nor Tsitsipas was thrilled with their performance. There is a lot to lose and little to gain in the first round of a major when you are as good as either of them.

Late Night In Paris: Stefanos Tsitsipas shakes hands with Lorenzo Musetti after coming back from being two sets down.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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