With Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the same half, Stefanos Tsitsipas started as one of the favourites to reach the French Open final this year. He won the Monte Carlo Masters and Lyon Open in the run-up to Roland Garros and was expected to build on his form and handle his side of the draw.
And after dropping just a set in his first four matches, he faced his toughest test yet. The Greek was pitted against a tricky opponent – Daniil Medvedev.
Now, second seed and all that, but Medvedev isn’t exactly considered a force to reckon with on clay; after all he had not won a single match in four attempts at Roland Garros before this year. But he possesses enough firepower to test the best on his day.
Medvedev, too, had dropped just one set heading into the quarter-finals but more importantly, he held a 6-1 advantage over Tsitsipas in their head-to-head. Their most recent meeting, in the Australian Open semi-finals earlier this year, had resulted in a straight sets victory for the Russian.
But their quarter-final encounter at the French Open on Tuesday ended up serving a reminder of how far Tsitsipas has come in terms of his clay-court game. It was a clash between the world No 2 and world No 5, and it was the latter who stamped his superiority on the red dirt with a 6-3, 7-6(3), 7-5 win.
Tsitsipas’ affinity with clay courts was apparent from the get-go in a match played behind closed doors under the lights at Court Philippe-Chatrier. Both players started the match aggressively but there was a calmness with which the Greek went about his business.
His confidence was visible in his looping backhand winner down the line off the fourth point, in the sublime drop shot he hit in the sixth game as he peddled back from the baseline, and in the masterful way in which he converted his first break point.
In fact, Tsitsipas started so well that Medvedev admitted later he was taken by surprise at the level so early in the match.
That momentum carried forward to the second set as well. Once again, Tsitsipas raised his game when it mattered most to earn a break, moving Medvedev from corner to corner with pinpoint accuracy before finishing off the point with the most relaxed drop shot.
Tsitsipas was in complete control leading 6-3, 3-1. He had lost just six points on serve at that point. But that’s when Medvedev finally found his range. There was an odd hesitancy in his game up until that point. But he showed the courage to step out of his comfort zone and that helped him get back into the match.
Part of the reason why Medvedev has struggled on clay over the years is the fact that he brings a hard-court game to the red dirt. His groundstrokes tend to be linear and flat with hardly any topspin on them. While there is no quick fix for that, he found another method to counter Tsitsipas’ versatility.
Tsitsipas finds answers
From being 1-3 down in the second set, Medvedev broke back and forced a tiebreak by relying on the drop shot and utilising one of his biggest strengths – his movement. His lateral movement had been mighty impressive through the first four rounds but against Tsitsipas, he forced a shift in momentum by sneaking to the net more often.
The consistent and precise use of the drop shot along with the timely approaches to the net managed to break Tsitsipas’ rhythm. Finally, after nearly a set and a half of one-way traffic, we had the intense battle that was expected from the start.
It still wasn’t quite enough for the Russian to take a set, though. In a critical moment in the match, Medvedev had two set points when Tsitispas was down 15-40 on his serve in the 10th game. But the Greek player saved those, and then Medvedev couldn’t emerge on top in the second set tiebreak.
To his credit, he kept up the pressure on the Tsitsipas serve in the third. He failed to convert his first four break points in that set but in the fifth game, he finally got the lead thanks to two brilliant winners after running to the net and yet another sublime drop shot. He backed that up with a love hold, closing out the game with a stunning forehand winner down the line.
The momentum was firmly in Medvedev’s favour at that point. He had never won a match from two sets to love down but he seemed determined to take Tsitsipas the distance.
However, what happened from that point on will perhaps please Tsitsipas the most at the end of the day. After dominating for a large part of the match, the 22-year-old was under the pump and he responded emphatically.
Instead of going into a shell, he fought aggressively and showed no hesitation in backing his strengths. Medvedev continued to attack his single-handed backhand, but he managed to soak up the pressure and turn things around by reducing the errors and putting more balls back into play.
From 2-4 down in the third set, Tsitsipas broke Medvedev’s serve twice to win five of the last six games and close out the match. Down match point after leading 40-0 on his serve, Medvedev went for a surprise underarm option and Tsitsipas nalied his backhand pass. A dramatic moment to finish the match in straight sets and 139 minutes, against expectations that it would be a marathon.
“I feel the most important game was the last one of the match, when I came back from 0-40 down. I could’ve easily given up and looked ahead at the tiebreak but I didn’t. That gives me a lot of confidence,” he said after the match.
Tsitsipas’ next opponent is Alexander Zverev. The sixth seed hasn’t lost a set since dropping his first two of the tournament, and will be full of confidence having beaten Nadal en route his Madrid Open title last month. But Tsitsipas holds a 5-2 lead in their head-to-head and will fancy his chances of going a step further than he did at the French Open last year. His game seems to be peaking at the right time and the straight sets win over a world-class player like Medvedev shows how accomplished he is on clay.
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