Eye on the ball. Stefanos Tsitsipas returns a ball to Kevin Anderson (not pictured) during the semifinals of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament at Aviva Center, in Toronto, Canada, on August 11.
Before he became a great writer, David Foster Wallace was “a near great junior tennis player.” As he tells it in his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart,” the main reason why he had no chance of becoming a star on the court was that when he played before the small crowds that came to watch the local tournaments in which he took part, he was overwhelmed by nerves. “I’d get divided, paralyzed,” he writes. “As most ungreat athletes do. Freeze up, choke. Lose our focus. Become self-conscious. Cease to be wholly present in our wills and choices and movements.”
Last week, Stefanos Tsitsipas – who on Monday, at 20 years and 1 day old, rose to 15th spot in the ATP singles rankings – reached the final of the Toronto Masters 1000, one of the season’s nine most important tournaments (outside of the four Grand Slams and the ATP Tour Finals in London). He achieved this by beating four top-10 players – something no one that young had done since the beginning of the ATP Tour era in 1990. In two matches – against the sore loser Alexander Zverev and the in-form Kevin Anderson – he had to save match points. His ability to raise his game in the moments that mattered most and his composure and boldness when everything was at stake were uncanny.
He was asked about his sangfroid under pressure after his victory over Anderson. “I’m secure and I’m aggressive at the same time,” is how he put it. “It was as if he didn’t know that it was match point, as if he woke up,” says Kostas Pergantis, the sports psychologist who has been working with Tsitsipas for eight years, about the moment of his win over the South African world No 6. “He has this amazing ability to be 100 percent present, not to dwell either on the past – the missed opportunity, the unforced error – or on the future.” Pergantis sees his role as facilitating this total immersion in the moment – this eclipse of the conscious self. “Stefanos is a perfectionist. I have tried to help him keep his self-criticism in check so that it does not affect his rhythm,” he says. But he insists that staying in the present is to a significant extent an innate skill, “it cannot be created out of nothing.”
This ataraxia, combined with his drive to succeed (after his defeat to Rafael Nadal he said he was “tired” but declared himself “hungry for more”), allowed him to win in Toronto even when he wasn’t at his best. “When you’re in the zone, you can do supernatural things,” says his father and coach, Apostolos Tsitsipas, whose image of controlled distress in the stands is beginning to become familiar to Greek TV viewers. Tennis players, as it’s been said, are the closest modern sports comes to the gladiators of antiquity – alone in the arena, forbidden from communicating with their team, reliant only on their own powers. Tsitsipas Sr speaks of “the zone” as a place few can reach – like the peaks of the world’s great mountain ranges.
We spoke with him after he and his son had landed in Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open, the second Masters 1000 event of the North American summer. Stefanos would go on to lose in his first match, to David Goffin – the Belgian world No 11. His next stop is New York and the US Open, the last Grand Slam of the year. The presence of the Greek-American community there is expected to be bigger and rowdier than in Toronto. Apostolos Tsitsipas speaks enthusiastically about the support his son got in Canada. “It was incredible… they were arguing amongst themselves, ‘Let the boy concentrate’ and so on, and it really calmed me down in the midst of all my worry.”
Despite the support from the stands, the young champion will always be alone on court – and now he carries the weight of even greater expectations on his shoulders. But in Toronto, he showed he can handle it – that he can shut out the noise and focus only on the little yellow ball.