Stefanos Tsitspas is the most successful Greek male tennis player in the Open Era and at 19, is the second-youngest player in the top-100. Reem Abulleil tells us his story.
He is only 19 years old but is already the most successful male Greek tennis player in the Open Era.
Ranked a career-high No. 71 this week, Stefanos Tsitsipas is enjoying a steady rise this season, thanks to quarter-final appearances in both Doha and Dubai in the last two months, and now notching just his second ever Masters 1000 main draw match win to reach the Indian Wells second round.
He takes on Austria’s fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem for a chance to make the third round at this level for the first time.
The 191cm Next Gen star was a world No. 1 junior before making the transition onto the pro circuit. This is his first year attempting a full ATP schedule.
Boasting a one-handed backhand not commonly found in young up-and-comers these days, Tsitsipas speaks fast but with clear thoughts and great articulation in conversation.
Born to a Greek father, Apostolos, who is his coach, and a Russian mother, former tennis player Julia Apostoli, Tsitsipas is from a family where sport runs deep. His maternal grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was an Olympic gold medal-winning footballer for the Soviet Union and has coached FC Spartak Moscow.
Asked how he feels his Greek culture and background has impacted him as a tennis player, Tsitsipas gives an interesting answer.
“I would say the Greek mentality, which I reversed,” he tells Sport360.
“I would say Greek people are a bit lazy and easygoing, which is good and on the other side it’s bad being lazy. It’s a culture with a lot of history and people tend to expect things, they are not so hard-working like other nations.
“Although I checked a couple of months ago on Wikipedia and we are the second-most working population in the world, working with the most hours in the world, which I didn’t expect. Number one is Mexico, and number two is Greece.”
I point out that it’s probably because a lot of time is wasted during the day and he agreed.
He is a fan of team sports and supports AEK Athens FC in football, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA.
“Greece is a culture that is not so much tennis-orientated, mostly football and basketball and these kind of sports. And I tried to copy the mentality of that, of the team competition I would say and bring it to tennis, something like this, I really cannot explain it,” he continued.
“There is a small influence from the country you come from but it’s also yourself, when you travel you see many things, you get more experienced, and most importantly you need to be very balanced with yourself and be very disciplined when you’re doing something. Discipline is number one for me.”
Tsitsipas is coming up on tour at a time where several young players are making some serious strides in the game. A 20-year-old Alexander Zverev is already a top-five player while someone like the 21-year-old Chung Hyeon, who won the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan last November, is already a Grand Slam semi-finalist.
Tsitsipas is the second-youngest player in the top-100 – behind Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, and is one of only two teenagers in that ranking bracket.
He has kept an eye on the accomplishments of his young peers but is happy to take his own time to reach his goals.
“Of course I’m patient. As we say in Greece, things have their own time, they will come at the right time. I try to stay humble, stay hungry, do the right things, work correctly, do the right things off and on the court and I believe the result is something that is just a word,” says Tsitsipas.
“It’s going to come anyway at some time, if you stay focused on what you’re doing the results will come. The Next Gen players have proven that to us.
“To be very honest I’m really happy to be part of this Next Gen thing because it pushes me every time to do even better.”
Last year the Next Gen Finals, featuring eight of the best 21-and-under players on tour, took place for the first time in Milan. Tsitsipas was an alternate there in 2017 and looks like a shoo-in for this year’s edition if he keeps playing this way.
His best ATP result so far has been a semi-final in Antwerp last October where he claimed his first top-10 victory over Belgium’s David Goffin.
Tsitsipas’ two quarter-finals in the Middle East this season included wins over veterans like Richard Gasquet and Philipp Kohlschreiber.
“I love the Middle East actually. It’s one of the cultures I really respect and I believe it’s very close to the Greek culture, it’s very historical. I respect it a lot. And I like the people here a lot,” he told me in Dubai last month.
Tsitsipas has a chance to avenge his defeat to Thiem from Doha last January when they face off at Indian Wells this weekend.
Thiem, who also hits a one-handed backhand, had good things to say about his Greek opponent.
“I played him in Doha and I was quite impressed actually. I had never seen him before and had never practiced with him before. But I think he definitely has potential for top-20,” Thiem said on Thursday.
“For more I think it’s also a little bit of luck and nobody can say it.
“But I think it’s also nice to have somebody from Greece, I think it’s going to be the first real top player from that country. One-handed backhand… I think he’s going to be good.”
Tsitsipas lives in Athens and is coached by his father, but also spends time at the Mouratoglou Academy in France and has benefited from its Champ Seed foundation.
“The foundation helped me very much in a way,” Tsitspas told me in Paris last year after making his Grand Slam main draw debut at Roland Garros as a qualifier.
“They provided me with free practice, free fitness coach, free food, free accommodation, it’s great. The people involved in this Champ Seed they are doing a great job for the players.”
While he didn’t have many reference points to follow in Greece as a tennis player growing up, Tsitsipas still found a way to get inspired.
“I grew up with Konstantinos Economidis (Greek former ATP player with a career-high ranking of 112), he used to do well when he played, that’s the period when I was starting to play more serious,” Tsitsipas said at the French Open last year.
“He also gave me a lot of motivation to pass him, to do better than him. He’s a great personality and a great person. He travelled with me last year he came to Roland Garros and Australia.
“Everything he achieved in this sport was all by himself without a coach and that’s really something unusual in sport to see.”