By James Steel
Two nights ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas crashed out in the first round of the U.S. Open and this, I think, is cause for concern for the Greek tennis star. The question that has hung over Tsitsipas’s (and other high-ranked young ATP players) head for a while is ‘will he win a Grand Slam title?’. Now, if someone had asked this question three years ago, the answers would’ve been ‘yes’ and ‘of course’ and ‘it’s a matter of when, not if’. However, skip to the present and Stef is still without a Grand Slam title to his name, not to mention the author of a host of questionable recent performances. With Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic still firmly atop the men’s tennis mountain and a series of ‘Next Next Gen’ stars ready to break through, I think that Tsitsipas will end his career without a major title.
Looking at this year, an objective argument could be made that Stef’s had a good season. Highlights include defending his Masters 1000 title in Monte-Carlo and reaching two other Masters 1000 finals in Rome and Cincinnati, plus winning his first grass court title in Mallorca. He even made the semifinals of the Australian Open. However, alongside the highs have been some deep lows: a fourth Round exit in Roland Garros and Miami and 2nd round exits at Indian Wells, Montreal, Halle, and Stuttgart.
The results above show the hard data of the highs and lows in current form, but there is more to form than just results. Tsitsipas’s overall game hasn’t shown much improvement in the past season and a half. During many of his matches, his forehand can be either a gift from God and that paints more lines than highway maintenance or a wild thing spraying long and wide with a public health notice associated with it. This studden switching on and off can occur not only mid tournament but mid match.
Then there’s the backhand. The one-hander looks very pleasing on the eye, especially on a clay court. However, put pressure on that backhand (especially on hard and grass courts) and it breaks down very easily, something Stef’s opponents are very accustomed to doing. The lack of a slice in his game doesn’t help either, especially on a grass court. His return of serve is also a major weakness, and not one that has become less of an issue over time.
But the major thing plaguing Tsitsipas’s form is his ability to handle the pressure. In Rome, the pressure of playing Djokovic (think of the Roland-Garros final last year) caused him to effectively give the first set to Novak and in the second-set tiebreak, the strain of the situation caused a series of damning unforced errors. In Cincinnati, it was telling how being the favorite against a dangerous opponent made Tsitsipas incredibly tight – he gave back an early break to Borna in the first set before going on a six-game losing streak. In the second set tiebreak, a litany of unforced errors gifted the tiebreak and the championship to Coric, 7-0.
Whether or not Tsitsipas wins a major depends on the field as well as the man himself. Rafa and Novak, two of the greatest ever, are still head and shoulders above the rest of the field despite being past the peak of their powers. Their longevity continues to vacuum up the major titles – they’ve combined to win 36 of the last 50 – leaving their younger rivals high and dry. Over time, this can create some scar tissue in the NextGen. (Will it ever be my time?) Medvedev is the only one to break through from his generation so far; many of the others may well be on track to form a second LostGen.
The NextGen players are causing concern for Tsitsipas. Medvedev has a winning record against him and when he is playing well can beat Stef fairly convincingly. However the major threat and the reason I think Tsitsipas won’t win a major in the future is the new stars of tomorrow. Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Holger Rune and Jack Draper are all showing a strong mentality and have all beaten Tsitsipas. (Alcaraz is even 3-0 against him.) They will only improve more with time and at this rate will quickly overtake Tsitsipas in ability and ranking.
I have to conclude that Stefanos Tsitsipas will not be lifting any of the four major trophies by the time his career is out. He had a golden opportunity at Roland-Garros in 2021 to break the ice, being two sets up in the final against Novak Djokovic, but that will be the closest he will get to being a champion. He may get to another final (draws can and have opened up) but given the challengers above him and below him coupled with the mentality and inconsistent game, I’ve come to think he won’t get over the line.