On this Aussie night, the boy who was reared in the land of the Greek gods unleashed many a bolt to subdue tennis’ mighty king. Moving with liquid speed and a confident ease, boy Stefanos Tsitsipas brought elder Roger Federer to earth.
“The Swiss usually leaves Melbourne on a Sunday, but not just this Sunday,” noted a Network 9 broadcaster. Let’s not call this a Federer fade. Goodness, the 37-year man is still No. 3 in the world. But now it has been a full year since the oldest man to ever be No. 1 has claimed a Slam. In a shock marathon he lost to South African Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon. In New York he melted down and fell to the No. 55 player, Aussie John Millman. And here he lost to the man who affectionately is called “the Greek freak,” a vastly appealing kid who told us, “I am the happiest man on earth right now.”
Recently, Federer has been defiant. He adeptly brushes time aside. But in his last three Slams, Roger hasn’t gotten beyond the quarterfinals – what a shock. Tonight, his foe broke his shoelace. Despite having 12 break points, Federer could not break Stefanos’ serve. How rare and un-Federer-like can you get?
Then again, Roger’s twilight pilgrimage is unique. It’s brave and full of love for a sport he adores. He inspires. He may not be as explosive as in the past – still, his shot-making and singular grace draws gasps. And how about this? Roger’s daughters are about as old as Tsisitpas’ younger sister. Roger was hoping to become the oldest Aussie Open quarterfinalist since Ken Rosewall in 1977.
But the legend ran into a fearless force of nature. After dropping the first set in a tiebreak, the Greek claimed the next three sets to score a 6-7(11), 7-6,(3), 7-5, 7-6(5) win that shocked the tennis world while delighting many in and just outside of Rod Laver Arena. After all, after Athens and Thessaloniki, Melbourne has the largest Greek community in the world. Many a flag-waving fan was amazed by the young man. Some called out, “A star is born!” But Tsistipas is no newbie. He tested Roger at the Hopman Cup earlier this year. He’s the No. 14 seed, and last summer he beat Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Anderson and Dominic Thiem to reach the Toronto final.
Never mind that Stefanos has idolized Roger since he was six. Tonight he was calm. He stepped up, was energetic and free-flowing. His one-handed backhand is a stroke of beauty. His anticipation is uncanny. He has a veteran’s savvy – and he’s smart. At 6’ 4” he’s big, but not too big. He brings to mind Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire.
A fighter on court and a philosopher off court, he said he knew he had to have an “aggressive mindset and stay in the moment, get my first serve in and press from the outset.” He added, “Over all, I showed a great fighting spirit.”
Tsitsipas told Inside Tennis that at his moment of triumph he had a flashback. “It was very emotional…a beginning of something really big. I felt joy. I felt happiness. I felt a huge relief off of my shoulders.”
On Australian TV, John McEnroe suggested this might be the changing of the guard. Remember when young Roger beat king-of-the-hill Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, 18 years ago? But Federer dismissed the notion, saying, “McEnroe is in front of the mic a lot. He’s always going to say stuff. I love John. I’ve heard that story the last 10 years…nothing new there.”
Okay. But Roger was then asked if he could see a little bit of himself in Stefanos. With a touch of whimsy he replied: “He has a one-handed backhand and I used to have long hair, too.”
There was a time when Roger failing to get beyond the quarters in a Slam for a full year was beyond our imagination. Now, said McEnroe, “You cannot imagine this guy Tsitsipas not winning Slams. The way he’s playing, he could win this one.”
To do so he would have to beat the red-hot Roberto Bautista-Agut and then possibly Nadal and Djokovic or Alexander Zverev.
But no worries – Greek gods have achieved mightier wonders than that – and come to think of it, it wouldn’t be so bad to have an adonis as a Grand Slam tennis champion.