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ATP Nitto Tennis • Stefanos Tsitsipas Beats Roger Federer • A Battle of Ages • Not To Be Confused With A Match For The Ages

By Alix Ramsay

We in the press corps are holding a quiz – no prizes on offer, natch – but the question is: when, apart from in the second game of the Nitto ATP Finals semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, did Roger Federer ever miss two smashes in one game? Any clue? No, we don’t know, either.

But on Saturday afternoon, in front of a packed pro-Fed O2 Arena, the Mighty One fluffed two overheads on his way to being broken. The match was barely a handful of minutes old and Fed was already on the back foot. And after an hour and 36 minutes of aggression, athleticism and resilience from the Greek, Fed was on his way home 6-3, 6-4. Depending on whether you are posh or common, he had either been hoist by his own petard or done up like a kipper.

Just as he had at the start of the year in Melbourne, Tsitsipas played Federer at his own game: he attacked, he was brave and he never gave an inch. Back in January, Stef’s goal for the year was to reach a grand slam semi-final and, after three weeks of the season, he had done just that. Coming to London for his Tour Finals debut, the obvious next goal was to reach a major final of some description. Mission accomplished. His two victories over the Swiss master were the perfect bookends to his season. And they were remarkably similar.

In January, Federer manufactured 12 break points against the Greek but could not convert a single one. In London, he had 12 break points and while he did make one of them pay, he immediately lost the momentum by dropping his serve in the very next game. In truth, he was only delaying matters: he had broken back to level the second set score at 2-2 but then fluffed and flapped to lose his serve again.

That was the problem for Rodge: there were just too many errors. Against Novak Djokovic on Thursday, he had been like the Fed of 10 years ago. He was seeing the ball like a football and he could do no wrong. Against Tsitsipas, he was playing well in patches but then, seemingly for no reason, he would make a mess of his forehand, completely misjudge a backhand. And as for those two smashes….Tsitsipas was doing to Fed what Fed had done to Djokovic. That meant there could only be one winner.

But Fed did fight. He was clearly furious with his failings and for one so usually calm and controlled on court, he made Andy Murray in a tight spot look like an angel (although his grumping was in Swiss German and usually directed at his feet rather than his box). If evidence were needed of Fed’s fight, by the end of the first set, a set concluded with a 13-minute game of eight deuces, two break points and seven set points, Tsitsipas had played 55 service points; Fed had played 20. Tsitsipas won the set, but he had to rip it from Fed’s racket strings.

Once he had done so, the match had changed. Again, Fed was broken early. This time, he failed to land a single first serve and was broken, tamely, to love. Fed engineered three more break points (with a few chum jetzes thrown in); he growled as all of them went begging and then when he got the fourth, then he broke with a drop shot. The crowd chanted his name loud and long, he stepped up to serve…and then he dropped serve with a succession of forehand misses.

And all the while, Tsitsipas stuck to his game plan like glue. He got tight towards the end, that is true, but he never gave up on his basic philosophy: attack is the best form of defence. He was ruthless and he was relentless and he was through to the final.

“I’m so proud of myself today,” Tsitsipas said. “A great performance and I really enjoyed my time of the court.

“Sometimes, matches like today, you really wonder somehow how you overcome all these difficulties, all these break points down, and it’s really like a mental struggle. So I’m really proud that I managed to save so many break points today.

“I was trying not to give an easy to Roger today – playing him, it’s the biggest honour I can have. And today’s victory is probably one of my best matches this season and these are the moments that I always wait for and these are the moments I always want to prove the best out of my game.”

At the very top level, tennis, like all sport, is played between the ears. When Tsitsipas needed to be strong in mind and action, he never wavered – as Fed had to concede. The six-time champion had been outplayed by a man 17 years his junior, a man who has never won a Masters 500 much less a Masters 1000 or a grand slam or a Davis Cup.

“The result shows,” Fed said. “He’s tough as nails. But, look, I’m just frustrated I couldn’t play better, and when I did and fought my way back, I threw it away again.

“He did come up with the goods when he had to, and he was better than me today. You know, obviously it’s his footwork that’s always on the aggressive side. Any short ball will be attacked, and I think he does that very, very well. He’s one of the best at that in the game.”

When asked whether he thought he was playing a mirror image of himself, Tsitsipas blushed a little.

“Well, it’s not easy to copy Federer,” he said. “This guy does magic on the court so for me I’m trying to do half of what he does. He can be so good sometimes.”

And yet Fed knew that he had met if not a Mini-Me (Stef is three inches taller than Rodge) then a Younger-Me.

“I tried everything I could, to be honest,” Fed said. “I tried to chip it eventually, tried to stay back and hit some. I tried to come forward. And for the most part I actually tried to play up in the court and tried to play aggressive, but of course with his aggression, it’s not always easy because he always takes the ball very early himself too.

“I knew he was going to be incredibly athletic. He was just a little bit better today at all those little things.”

Who knows if anyone will win the press quiz but it does look like Stefanos Tsitsipas is the odds-on favourite to win the Nitto ATP Finals.

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