Tsitsipas — the Greek god with the feet for clay


After a strong showing on the red dirt last year, including a run to the Roland Garros final, the 23-year-old has started the 2022 clay season by winning Monte Carlo again. Can he begin to dream of Paris?

After a strong showing on the red dirt last year, including a run to the Roland Garros final, the 23-year-old has started the 2022 clay season by winning Monte Carlo again. Can he begin to dream of Paris?

When Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in straight sets to retain his Monte Carlo Masters title earlier this week, he entered an exclusive club.

Not only is he the first repeat champion on the red dirt by the sea since Rafael Nadal in 2018, he is also just the sixth since 1969, when the Open era started, to defend his crown. The list of men Tsitsipas joined — Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, Thomas Muster, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Nadal — have all peaked at World No. 1 and triumphed at least once at Roland Garros. Both are goals the 23-year-old from Greece is aiming to achieve; so while his victory may not be a harbinger, it’s confirmation that he is on the right track.

What’s more, Davidovich Fokina paid Tsitsipas the ultimate compliment by comparing him favourably with Nadal, in terms of clay-court prowess.

“Rafa is a beast physically. He is a lefty, as you know, and when we play against him we always play the backhand. [That’s why] it is tough to play against Rafa,” he said. “Stefanos has a one-handed backhand. But it is not easier to play [against Tsitsipas] than Rafa. It’s a different ball.”

Nadal is the gold standard on clay: 13 Roland Garros titles; an additional 49 trophies on the dirt, including 11 at Monte Carlo, 10 at Rome and 12 in Barcelona; the longest single-surface win streak (81 consecutive matches), and an incredible 91.5% win rate (464 wins, 43 losses). Nadal has also been the benchmark for Tsitsipas, someone he can measure himself against.

Reaching my limits

“Rafa is a real competitor on the court. He hates to lose,” Tsitsipas said. “He hates to lose more than anyone else. I haven’t seen anyone fight like this. He makes my life really difficult on court. I’m there to accept those terms and play based on his desire to fight. It also makes me a better player and I can see myself reaching my limits. It’s definitely something good to have for my personal development and growth.”

Tsitsipas’ admiration for Nadal’s fighting spirit isn’t surprising. For all the beauty in his game — the backhand, the agility and the feel, when he chooses to employ it — the sinewy 6’4” star with matinee-idol looks enjoys grinding out wins. He is a hard-nosed competitor, even if some of his, and his father Apostolos’, behaviour has been questioned — the lengthy bathroom breaks, which brought about a rule change, and the charges of on-court coaching, which he says he pays no attention to. For the most part, however, he lets his racquet do the talking.

“It was a great way to top it off with lots of fighting in the end,” he once said of an ‘ugly’, hard-fought win. “[It was] not so much [about] going for clean winners or for too much beautiful tennis, but trying to put in the hard work in every single point and go over the limits, as I like to say. I take more pride in that than winning effortless matches. Effortless matches are great for energy conservation, but there is a different feeling when you fight so hard and you give your soul out on the court, when you manage to win a match under these conditions.”

This taste for a scrap is one of the things that makes Tsitsipas successful on clay. While the absence of Nadal — out of action with a rib injury — and the early exit of Novak Djokovic reduced the severity of Tsitsipas’ challenge at Monte Carlo this year, he still had to dig deep to win his eighth ATP title — his first in 11 months.


He had to recover from 0-4 down in the final set to defeat Diego Schwartzman in a draining quarterfinal match. Tsitsipas had been a set and 5-2 ahead at one stage and seemingly cruising to the last four. However, his Argentine opponent hit back only to be thwarted in a contest which went late into the night. “I don’t think I’ve ever made such a comeback in my career. It was crazy… I found the resources and I’m proud of it,” said Tsitsipas.

He had to back that up the very next day in a straight-set win over Alexander Zverev and then again the day after that in the final. “My body was not at 100%, but I’m very happy with the tennis I produced,” he said. “I don’t know whether the long match gave me some rhythm, but I was able to play good tennis. I’m happy I was able to execute and come up with some good ideas on the court.”

Winning three best-of-three matches back to back — while impressive — isn’t the limit of endurance for a tennis player, but Tsitsipas wasn’t even scheduled to be at this stage of physical readiness. He went under the knife last November after pulling out of the ATP Finals with an elbow injury and was not expected to return to action for several months.

But his recovery was much faster than expected — he made it back for the Australian Open and got to the semifinals. “That was not normal, not normal at all,” he said. “My doctor had planned for me to start playing the first week of the clay season. It threw him off, he did not expect it. It was kind of a miracle in a way. The fact I was able to go deep at the Australian Open was the best thing that has happened in my career, after such a difficult injury which I suffered with for many years.”

The performance in Melbourne was the fifth instance of Tsitsipas advancing at least as far as the semifinals at a Major. He has made the last four thrice in the last four years at the Australian Open and has a semifinal and a runner-up finish at Roland Garros in successive years, losing to Djokovic over five sets both times. The 2021 loss was especially heartbreaking, as he was up two sets to love.

The run to the final in Paris last year was the culmination of a strong clay-court season. Alongside his Monte Carlo victory, his first Masters 1000 title, he also triumphed in Lyon and reached the final in Barcelona. He clearly has the tools to win on clay; it helps that it’s a surface he loves — “my favourite” — and has played a lot on during his formative tennis years. He has the movement, the serve to win him court position and set him up for the next ball, the ability to construct points and end them, and the patience when he is dialled in mentally.


Clay also helps him counteract his opponents’ most effective tactic on faster courts — hitting deep to his single-handed backhand and pinning him behind the baseline. The slowness of the surface allows him to run around and use his forehand more often: in the Monte Carlo final against Davidovich Fokina, for instance, he managed to hit a forehand 60% of the time in rallies and simultaneously limited his opponent to a lower percentage of forehands.

Asked about his consistency on the dirt, Tsitsipas said, “I think my tennis is excellent on all surfaces, although it adapts better to clay.” Given the manner in which he has started this clay-court season, he can be forgiven for already thinking about Paris. But he isn’t looking that far ahead. “We still have Masters 1000 events [Madrid and Rome next month],” he said, “so I will concentrate on those before the French Open comes along.”

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