10sBalls.com • TennisBalls.com

Tennis Tistispas Wins in Monte Carlo – is this the Start of a Revolution or Will Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic Restore Order at Roland Garros?

Stefanos Tsitsipas wins the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, 18 April 2021. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

By Alix Ramsay

“It starts in Monte Carlo”. That is what Stefanos Tsitsipas scrawled on the camera lends after winning his maiden title in Monaco and his first Masters 1000 crown. It all starts here.

But no sooner had the cameraman replaced the glass screen protecting that lens (they are not daft, these cameramen – lenses cost a fortune and Sharpie scribblings come in indelible ink) and Stef had lifted the trophy than it was all systems go for Barcelona and Belgrade, the next stops on the relentless tour.

In Barcelona, Rafa Nadal will be trying to sort out the kinks in his serve that cost him so dear against Andrey Rublev this past week. At the same time, Novak Djokovic will be trying to work out what ails him in Belgrade. That third round loss to Dan Evans in Monaco was, by his standards, unacceptable and he needs to get his game back in working order. Oh, and Evo will be in Barcelona with a new career-high ranking of No.26 and a new taste for clay court tennis. He wants to build on his semi-final finish at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

What, then, has started with opening of the clay court season? Is this the beginning of a revolution in the ranks? Maybe. But maybe not.

Certainly, Tsitsipas’s demolition of Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-3 on Sunday was impressive. He had been impressive throughout the week, even if he did not have too many large obstacles in his path in the early stages. But it was his demeanour that was different.

Stef likes to talk at some considerable length. He has many interests, he reckons he has deep thoughts and he likes to share these with anyone who will listen. He is also an emotional chap and he doesn’t believe in hiding his feelings. Yet this week, he has been controlled, focused and reasonably quiet. He has talked to the media but he has not had that much to say.

It was on the eve of the final that this came became most apparent. Asked on Saturday how it felt to be in his first Monte Carlo final, he was coy.

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece celebrates with the trophy after winning his final match against Andrey Rublev of Russia at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, 18 April 2021. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

“There are a lot of great things that happened in Monaco, talking about my family,” he said. “I really want to keep this tradition going. We’ll see tomorrow. It’s important for me to be in the final here in Monaco.”

Yes, but what things Stef? But he was not saying. He would not be drawn.

“I’m going to talk about it tomorrow, if you don’t mind,” he said, cutting off all further lines of investigation. “Prefer to talk about it tomorrow.”

There was a job to be done and, until it was finished, Tsitsipas was not going to be distracted.

At first glance, it does not seem like much. But Tsitsipas first came to the MCCC with his mum as a little boy. She showed him the honours boards and he was amazed by what he saw. Then playing for the Soviet Union, Julia Salnikova (now Mrs Tsitsipas) won the junior title in 1981 and there was her name up on the wall.

“I remember seeing it for the first time,” he said. “I was, like, stunned. I was like, Wow, that is really cool. How cool is that?

“I actually started thinking about it. I didn’t think about it in the beginning of the tournament, but it came to my mind when I was playing the semi-finals. I was thinking that would be really cool to be in this together: like mother like son. That’s where the whole purpose came from. I feel like there was an enormous amount of willingness to want to do more in order to be there with my mum.

“If there’s two people I would like to dedicate this is my coach back in Greece and also my mom, because she pushed me to aim for that.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas (C facing) celebrates with his father Apostolos Tsitsipas (L) and mother Julia Apostoli. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

When he won on Sunday afternoon, the emotions flowed – he hugged everyone allowed by the Covid protocols: his mum, his dad, his mum again. But until that point, he had managed to keep everything in check. Every point on court was dealt with in clinical isolation: win this point (or lose it) and move on to the next and win that (or lose it) and move on again. He won most of them.

As the final began, Tsitsipas had played Rublev four times in the last eight months and won twice – once at Roland Garros and once in London. But he had lost to the Russian on clay in Hamburg before the French Open. And he had learned from both matches on the red dirt. Working with “my psychologist, sports adviser, whatever”, he has been practising meditation and breathing techniques to keep him calm and in the moment (although his claim that “I find breathing very important” may have raised a giggle in some quarters – we all find it kind of important, Stef. Life affirming, even…)

“It all starts from mental,” he said. “If mentally I’m able to concentrate on each single point, not have gaps where I play one good point, then the rest of the points aren’t as consistent or don’t have the same quality, then that was the thing that kind of kept me away in Hamburg. Definitely a good learning experience.

“It wasn’t easy coming into that Roland Garros match that I had to play against him. Things were difficult. But I think finding few potholes and executing the right game plan gave me a very important Roland Garros win. There was plenty for me to learn from there.”

The result is his first Masters 1000 title on Sunday and his place at the top of the leader board in the ATP race (although he is still No.5 in the rankings). Yet this only the start – as Tsitsipas wrote on that camera.

Last year as the tour returned to clay, Nadal was turned over by Diego Schwartzman in the Rome quarter-finals. But he still won Roland Garros. The year before, Nadal lost in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid (to Fognini, Thiem and Tsitsipas respectively) and still won Roland Garros. The clay court swing is just beginning and Tsitsipas is not daft as he looks forward to meeting the big boys again.

“Everyone likes to think that they’re getting older,” he said, with a smile. “In fact, they are getting older.

Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates after beating Andrey Rublev. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

“They always find solutions to everything. That’s what makes them the great players and kind of like the legends of our sport. They can handle the situations very well.”

So, is Monte Carlo the start of something? It certainly seems to be for Tsitsipas but whether it is enough to start something new at Roland Garros, we shall see. Rafa may yet have something to say about that.