Tennis can sometimes be an unforgivably brutal sport. It can drain you physically and mentally, and yet leave you empty-handed at the end of the match. And when it's Novak Djokovic at the other end, with the result almost inevitable, you can't fault a player for throwing in the towel rather than putting themselves through the ringer.
But Stefanos Tsitsipas was having none of that. He gave it his everything in the semifinals of the 2020 French Open against the Serb, and he has an epic five-setter to show for his efforts - a five-setter that will long live in the memory of everyone who watched it.
Coming into this match, there was no doubt that Novak Djokovic was the favorite; he almost always is. But there was a sense that Stefanos Tsitsipas could perhaps give the Serb a good fight - the way he has to the other members of the ‘Big 3’ in the past.
The Greek’s victory over Roger Federer at the 2019 Australian Open showed the world that he had the game to beat anyone. He has stumbled at the Slams since then, but his big breakthrough seemed like a matter of time.
That breakthrough didn't quite happen against Novak Djokovic on Friday. But even though Tsitsipas ultimately fell short, he reminded everyone of just what he was capable of on the big stage.
Novak Djokovic vs Stefanos Tsitsipas - a match of opposite halves
Stefanos Tsitsipas announced his intentions at the start of the match, racking up multiple break points in the very first game. It was clear that the Greek wasn’t there to play second fiddle to Djokovic; he was willing to put in the extra yard to make the World No. 1 earn his win.
Unfortunately for Tsitsipas though, even though he had the will, he didn't have the patience early on to find a way against the doggedness of Novak Djokovic.
Novak Djokovic’s sensational defensive abilities made everyone wonder how any player - let alone someone as skilled as Stefanos Tsitsipas - could win points against him on the slow surface. Every missile that the Greek launched somehow landed back in the court.
Tsitsipas had the power, but sometimes lacked the direction to pierce through the court. And sometimes, he just had to acknowledge that Djokovic was simply too good.
The first two sets saw the 17-time Grand Slam champion take a 6-3, 6-2 lead. And when Novak Djokovic takes a two-sets-to-love lead at a Grand Slam, there is virtually no coming back for any player.
The Serb has taken such a lead in 217 of his matches throughout his career, out of which he’s won 216. To date, Jurgen Melzer remains the only man to have come back from such a deficit against Djokovic and interestingly enough, that happened 10 years ago at the very same place.
So naturally, when Stefanos Tsitsipas was down by two sets, the match seemed like a foregone conclusion. It was not about 'if' but 'when' Novak Djokovic would clinch his place in the final.
In the third set, Djokovic seemed to be aiming for the jugular in practically every return game. The Greek was hanging on by the skin of his teeth, and that tiny fragment of support finally snapped in the ninth game when Djokovic broke to serve for the match.
He was a game away from confirming his place in Sunday’s title-decider against Rafael Nadal. That soon turned into a solitary point as Novak Djokovic arrived at match point for a straight-sets win.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, however, had other ideas. He saved the match point, broke Djokovic back, held his own serve and then broke Djokovic another time to miraculously take the third set 7-5.
The Stefanos Tsitsipas forehand takes center-stage
It was the forehand that did all the damage in this astonishing three-game streak by Tsitsipas. Taking the ball on the rise and aiming for the corners with power and precision, the World No. 6 used his favored wing to put the ball just out of reach of the scrambling Serb - in a way that no player has been able to all year.
What made the sudden surge especially remarkable though is that it came when practically everyone had given up hope of a turnaround.
When pushed to the brink in battle, the Greeks have an incredible history of upsetting the odds and shifting the balance in their favor. They are said to possess an innate and unquenchable desire for glory even in the face of defeat, and Stefanos Tsitsipas proved he was no different. Some even suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that he was probably setting up the Trojan horse for Novak Djokovic in the first two sets, coaxing the Serb to get complacent.
What followed next was wave after wave of the most sublime attacking tennis that has been witnessed at Roland Garros so far this year. Winners started coming fast and furious off both wings as Tsitsipas kept finding the lines with ease and panache.
His big serve was not only backing that up but also helping him save several more break-points in the way. In the first half of the match Djokovic saved 10 consecutive break points and at the same time took almost every opportunity that came his way. That statistic was reversed in the third and fourth sets; Tsitsipas saved 10 out of 11 break points during that stretch while seizing on the very few chances that he had a sniff at.
The Greek somehow found his best tennis in the nick of time, and was extraordinarily clutch when Djokovic threatened to break his serve. Not afraid to go big on those points, Tsitsipas was constantly rewarded for his fearless tennis.
Even the greatest returner of all time in Novak Djokovic began to struggle against the venom and authority of Tsitsipas’ groundstrokes. Be it down-the-line or crosscourt, be it on his forehand or backhand, Tsitsipas displayed an absolute masterclass in shot-making. In doing so, he showed that it was actually possible for a player to hit through the seemingly impenetrable defence of Novak Djokovic.
But the blitzkrieg that had brought him back into the match was perhaps the very same thing that eventually led to his downfall. A non-stop flow of high-octane tennis ultimately cost the Greek physically, as his groin began sending distress signals to the brain.
Stefanos Tsitsipas did incredibly well to come back from match point down and take the match to a fifth, but he was a spent force in the decider. And at the same time Novak Djokovic made sure he had a full tank when it was really required. The Serb kept a watertight control on his emotions throughout, and never roared or yelled even after winning any big point, the way he usually does.
There was a sense of eerie calm and control around Novak Djokovic throughout, even when he was being outplayed in the third and fourth sets. It was a little unsettling to watch, but that is probably what helped him maintain a high level right till the end.
Novak Djokovic never played badly at any point in the match, and that showed in his demeanor. The Serb's unusual composure may have also unnerved Tsitsipas; the Greek threw the kitchen sink at him, but Djokovic stood his ground to show that he was prepared to go at it all day. And that had to be a little deflating.
Novak Djokovic eventually won with a scoreline of 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 to find himself in his fifth ever French Open final. But he knows that there is still a big hurdle to cross before he can truly be at peace and roar like never before.
Whoever wins on Sunday will make history one way or another. But Stefanos Tsitsipas’ performance will also become a part of history - for the sheer heart, courage, power and shot-making that it had.
This was a performance for the ages, and a sign that the 22-year-old is ready for the next step in his evolution as a champion. The next time he comes up against the immovable object that is Novak Djokovic, he might not need to go match point down to bring out his best tennis.Published 10 Oct 2020, 11:17 IST