Resilient Tsitsipas ready to take major step forward at Australian Open

<span>Photograph: Ella Ling/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Ella Ling/Shutterstock

As Stefanos Tsitsipas was dragged unwillingly to a fifth set after leading Jannik Sinner in his fourth-round match at the Australian Open, the signs were concerning. Every service game was a painful fight, with Tsitsipas facing 18 break points in the third and fourth sets alone, and the final set began with his opponent in control. Sinner prowled on top of the baseline, dictating play and prepared to shut him out.

But under immense pressure Tsitsipas thrived. He hustled out an early break against the run of play, taking advantage of Sinner’s nerves, and as the momentum shifted he refused to let go. His serve was supreme for the rest of the set, he didn’t face the break point and somehow he survived.

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It was the most important win of Tsitsipas’s tournament and it reflected one of his defining qualities: the mental strength that has driven him during some of his biggest moments.

Tsitsipas’s assets are varied and clear. He has one of the most effective one-two punches with his serve and forehand, the latter a spectacular shot that can generate such vicious angles. His willingness to play all-court tennis and his ability in the forecourt once he gets there sets him apart from most of his peers. He is a solid athlete and mover. Still, his toughness and inner belief has pushed him to most of his success.

On Friday, as he faces Karen Khachanov, the 18th seed, in the semi-final, his mental strength will be essential as he tries to grasp one of the biggest opportunities of his career. In his five previous grand slam semi-finals, Tsitsipas never faced an opponent outside the top eight. The only time he faced an opponent ranked beneath him, Alexander Zverev was ranked one spot below him at No 6. He won. This time, Tsitsipas is the overwhelming favourite to reach his second major final and heads into the semi-final with a 5-0 record against Khachanov.

Tsitsipas has started this season producing some of the best results of his life. After winning four difficult matches at the United Cup, which he used as a platform for his Australian Open success, he has won his first nine matches of the year. In Melbourne, every match aside from his tussle with Sinner has been handled in straight sets.

Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates during his gruelling five-setter against Jannik Sinner.
Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates during his gruelling five-setter against Jannik Sinner. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

“I’m feeling great with my tennis,” said Tsitsipas on Tuesday. “I don’t think I felt so good in a long time. I’ve said it, I’m a different player, playing different. My mentality is different. When I’m out on the court, I don’t really think of negatives, to be honest. I just go out there and play the game.”

Now 24 years old, Tsitsipas is no longer one of the young rising stars and he is nearing his physical peak. Every week seemingly brings another younger opponent, such as Sinner and Jiri Lehecka in successive rounds this week, who is fighting for his spot. This feels like one of the most important years of his career as he tries to finally step up and become the type of player who can consistently navigate his way to the final weekend of grand slams.

Last year was not that season. There were many positive things Tsitsipas accomplished in 2022. He finished the season inside the top four for the first time and he started the year with a miracle, reaching the semi-final of the Australian Open shortly after elbow surgery. He won his second Masters 1000 title at Monte Carlo and reached two more Masters 1000 finals in Rome and Cincinnati. But at the grand slams, after Melbourne, he failed to reach another quarter-final, ending the year with a horrific first-round loss to the No 94, Daniel Elahi Galán. His glaring weaknesses – his backhand wing, particularly his slice, and his return of serve – were exposed at all levels.

If another breakthrough is imminent, Australia would be ideal. Tsitsipas receives significant support from Greek fans and has embraced it. “The French players have Roland Garros as their home grand slam, the British players have Wimbledon, the American players have the US Open,” said Tsitsipas. “For me the Australian Open is always going to be my home grand slam. I feel very much loved here.”

As a result, it has been his best grand slam, even though he reached his only previous major final on his favourite surface, clay, at the French Open. Melbourne was the site of his breakthrough in 2019 when he defeated Roger Federer en-route to his first major semi-final and it is the one grand slam he has always performed at, reaching four semi-finals in five years. Now he will look to take a step forward and position himself to compete for the title.