When Roger Federer won the first of his 20 Grand Slam titles, at Wimbledon 2003, a boy yet to turn five had already been holding a racquet for nearly two years in Greece.
Eight years later, Federer had won 16 majors, and the Greek was now a teen well into his bid to become a professional tennis player. He exuded confidence, already.
Less than eight further years on, the boy turned man on a cool Sunday evening at the iconic Rod Laver Arena – Stefanos Tsitsipas, now 20 and ranked in the world’s top-15, had taken down Federer, inflicting upon the Swiss maestro only his second exit before the quarter-finals of the Australian Open since 2004.
If you hadn’t yet marked the star, you knew it now: a star has settled on the tennis horizon.
Tsitsipas: The Story So Far
For someone who was ranked world number one in junior tennis, Tsitsipas’ rise up the charts didn’t match the eyeball- and eardrum-catching levels as some of his peers.
Having started off at ITF Futures events in Greece in 2013, shortly after turning 15, he waited until 2015 to feature in junior Grand Slam tournaments – and couldn’t go beyond the quarter-finals at any of the four events that year.
Two more years would pass before Tsitsipas would emerge on the senior tour, but by the end of 2017 he had broken into the top-100, while also claiming his first win against a top-10 ranked player by getting past David Goffin en route a maiden ATP semi-final at the European Open in Belgium.
2018, however, would be the year he broke through – with one golden week in Canada, at the beginning of August, highlighting just what potential he held.
At the Toronto Masters, Tsitsipas would become the youngest man ever to defeat four top-10 ranked players in the same tournament – his scalps reading Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Kevin Anderson – before going down to Rafael Nadal in the final.
It wasn’t his first foray into a big-ticket final, not even his first attempt at standing up to Nadal; earlier in the season, on his lesser-preferred surface (clay), Tsitsipas had tried to front up to the King of Clay in the summit clash at Barcelona (losing 2-6, 1-6).
A Record-Smasher, Already
Still six months shy of 21, Tsitsipas is already a proud beholder of several records, even if a majority of them could be attributed to Greece’s general inability to produce top-level stars in the sport.
Spin it the other way, and you could point to a story of rising from the abyss.
- Youngest entrant into ATP’s #NextGen (October 2016, aged 18 years and two months)
- First Greek player to break into the top-100 (first entry: October 2017)
- First Greek player to reach the round of 16 at a Grand Slam (Wimbledon 2018)
- Youngest-ever to defeat four top-10 players at the same event (Toronto 2018)
- First Greek player to win an ATP World Tour title (Stockholm 2018)
Vlogging, and a Rich Family History
Even before his Federer-snapping exploits at Melbourne Park, Tsitsipas was a familiar figure to anyone frequenting ATP’s social media handles.
A self-confessed serial vlogger, the Greek has been making the most of his time travelling across the world playing tennis, and is a constant presence on the ATP social pages. Tsitsipas even produces his own podcast called ‘A Greek Abroad’.
Tennis, and sport at large, can be attributed to the genes in the 20-year-old’s case.
His mother, Julia Salnikova, was a top Soviet player in the 1980s, and is a now a professional coach. Stefanos’ father, Apostolos, is his own coach. His sister Elisavet, and brothers Petros and Pavlos, all play tennis.
Sporting success in the family, though, began much earlier: grandfather Sergei Salnikov was part of Soviet Union’s gold medal-winning football team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Learnings From Recent Giant-Slayers
Tsitsipas’ own track record from the last year, and his world number 15 status, means this cannot be termed a flash-in-the-pan moment.
You don’t get to be among the best players in a global sport on the back of overnight success; getting past four of the best in the same sport in the same week isn’t a regular occurrence either.
But the Greek will do well to ward off the troughs of other giant-killers at the Slams from the recent past.
Remember Robin Soderling? Or Denis Istomin? Or Sergei Stakhovsky?
Soderling, in 2009, became the first man to get the better of Nadal at Roland Garros – thereby paving the way for Federer to complete his ‘Grand Slam’ as he captured that elusive French Open title. The Swede, then seeded 23rd, would make two back-to-back finals in Paris, and even finish 2010 ranked fourth in the world. But mononucleosis, or glandular fever, would curb his career short; Soderling never played competitive tennis post 2011.
Istomin is a more recent big-gun slayer. At the Australian Open 2017, ranked 117th in the world, the Uzbek dumped Djokovic – he who had won five of the previous six titles at Melbourne Park – in the second round. In eight major appearances ever since, he has failed to last beyond the second round, and is still ranked outside the top-100.
Stakhovsky, arguably, is the most flash-in-the-pan of the lot. In 2013, he embarrassed Federer in the second round at his fiefdom – that summer at Wimbledon, which ended a round later, remains the longest the Ukrainian has lasted at a major. The highest crest his rankings reached in the years since was the late-40s in 2015; today he finds himself dwindling in the 130s.
It’s a long road ahead for the Greek wonderkid, beginning with his maiden Grand Slam quarter-final on Tuesday, 22 January.