Stefanos Tsitsipas emerges as next superstar of tennis but past Finals champions provide warning

Paul Newman
The Independent

Men’s tennis has been waiting for the new generation of younger players to topple the old guard for some years now and a fresh-faced champion was duly crowned here at the Nitto ATP Finals on Sunday night. Stefanos Tsitsipas’ spectacular 6-7, 6-2, 7-6 victory over Dominic Thiem in the final of the year-ending showpiece was the biggest win of the 21-year-old Greek’s career.

Tsitsipas, the youngest winner of the title since 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt in 2001, thrilled a capacity crowd with his all-action brand of attacking tennis to seal his reputation as the sport’s most exciting new talent. With his engaging personality, flowing locks and dynamic game style, the world No 6 has what it takes to become one of the sport’s biggest names for years to come.

Having impressed the public here all week with his performances, Tsitsipas enjoyed the support of the majority of the spectators, many of whom were chanting his name in the final set. Tsitsipas paid tribute afterwards to them for their “amazing” support. “They give me so much energy and so much belief,” he said.

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The final brought a fitting climax to the ATP season, with both men attacking at every opportunity and demonstrating their power, athleticism and coolness under pressure. Purists will have enjoyed the sight of two players hitting majestic one-handed backhands as well as the sweet skills both men displayed at the net.

After a tight first set in which there were no breaks of serve, Thiem never trailed in the tie-break, which he won 8-6. Tsitsipas’ response, however, was stunning. The world No 6 dropped only two points in racing into a 4-0 lead in the second set, which he won in just 26 minutes.

When Tsitsipas broke to go 2-1 up in the decider and then held serve to love it seemed that Thiem’s resistance might have crumbled, but the 26-year-old Austrian is a magnificent competitor and broke back to level at 3-3 and take the match to a deciding tie-break.

Thiem fought back once again in the tie-break from 1-4 down to 4-4, but Tsitsipas, holding his nerve, won the next three points to claim victory after more than two and a half hours.

It was the perfect end to what has been a very good week at the year-end finals, but while it might be tempting to see this as the start of a new era, we have been here before. Tsitsipas was the third successive first-time champion at these finals and will be hoping that he can follow up his triumph with better seasons than those enjoyed by his predecessors.

The Greek has everything to become the next superstar in tennis (Getty)
The Greek has everything to become the next superstar in tennis (Getty)

Grigor Dimitrov, the champion in 2017, did not win any titles in 2018 and saw his ranking slide from a career-high No 3 to No 19 over the next 12 months.

Alexander Zverev enjoyed his finest moment here in 2018, beating Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in successive matches to claim the title, but the 22-year-old German has won only one minor title this year. He has lost to lower-ranked opponents on 21 occasions in 2019 and had won only one of his six matches against top 10 players before beginning the defence of his title here.

While Thiem, Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini have all struck significant blows for the younger generation in 2019, the fact is that the year-end world rankings have an all too familiar look. Rafael Nadal, aged 33, finished on top, ahead of 32-year-old Djokovic and 38-year-old Federer. It is the eighth time they have filled the top three places in the year-end rankings following their achievements in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2018.

Tsitsipas celebrates with the trophy (Getty)
Tsitsipas celebrates with the trophy (Getty)

That rankings domination is largely down to the supremacy of the established players in the Grand Slam tournaments. Djokovic won his seventh Australian Open title this year and his fifth Wimbledon, while Nadal triumphed at Roland Garros for the 12thtime and added a fourth US Open. The last time anyone outside the so-called “Big Three” won any Grand Slam title was in 2016, when Stan Wawrinka took the US Open.

In 2020 there could even be the prospect of the “Big Five” resuming their domination. Wawrinka is back up to No 16 in the rankings after struggling so long with knee trouble, while Andy Murray, continuing his remarkable comeback after hip surgery, won his first title for two and a half years in Antwerp last month.

If the younger generation are to topple the ancien ré​gime, this year, the men most likely to do so could be those who played at these year-end finals. Although Medvedev was not at his best after a gruelling season and Berrettini was sometimes outclassed, Zverev enjoyed one of his better weeks this year and Thiem and Tsitsipas were worthy finalists.

The Greek is the youngest ever winner of the Finals (Getty)
The Greek is the youngest ever winner of the Finals (Getty)

Thiem has been the game’s second best clay-court player behind Nadal for the last three years but has shown in 2019 that he can also excel on hard courts. Since appointing Nicolas Massu as his coach in February the Austrian has won two titles on clay and three on hard courts.

Tsitsipas’ year in the Grand Slam tournaments never quite lived up to the promise he had shown at the Australian Open, where he beat Roger Federer en route to the semi-finals, but he won two titles on the ATP tour, was runner-up on three other occasions and saved his best for last. More than that, the dashing Greek has emerged as a personality the public will enjoy watching for years to come.

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