Stefanos Tsitsipas, looking eerily like a youngRoger Federer, reached the ninth final of his young career by beating the game’s most enduring champion 6-3, 6- 4 for a place in Sunday’s deciding match in the ATP Tour Finals.
The 17 – year age differential between them is the biggest in the 50 – year history of the event and a pointer to the power shift in the game. He saved 11 of 12 break points in a match that see-sawed for most of the hour and 36 minutes it held the packed stadium entranced. It was not a classic but nonetheless memorable for its mistakes and missed opportunities.
“Wow, Jesus,” Tsitsipas said, ecstatic and not at all mindful of blasphemy. “I’m so proud of myself today. A great performance. I really enjoyed my time on the court. It was a mental struggle. I am proud to save so many break points today. Beating him is the biggest honor I can have. It was probably one of my best matches of the season. These are the moments that I wait for.
“It’s not easy to copy Federer. This guy does magic on the court. I’m trying to do half of what he does. He can be so good. We have one-handed backhands but we all come in different shapes and sizes. I watched him growing up. I could never picture myself standing here. Today I’m here, living the dream. ”
Federer was hugely disappointed with his performance and angry at missing two smashes among his slew of break points. “That hasn’t happened in a long, long time – or ever,” he said. “I had some good spells but the spells where things were not working well, they were pretty bad.”
He said the presence of four players 23 or under in the Finals for the first time since 2009 pointed to a good season next year for young contenders, but pointed out that Rafael Nadal is still No 1 in the world. “Look at who has been World No 1 all these years. It’s just crazy that it’s always one of us [himself, Nadal or Djokovic]. But we are not getting any younger. ”
It took Federer less than two minutes to create a break opportunity with a “so Roger” dink beyond his stranded opponent that fell like a feather just inside the baseline – truly a thing of beauty – but he could not cash in .
Tsitsipas, who lost a three-set thriller against Nadal, had to dig deep again to wrestle with a second legend in 24 hours, and his challenge was to maintain the intensity through every point all the way to the end. Nadal beat the Greek and Daniil Medvedev in two of his three round-robin matches and left town as the oldest year-end No 1 in tennis at 33.
Now the 21 – year-old Tsitsipas had to find a way to make Federer’s 38 – year-old legs buckle to his will. He broke and held with a string of piercing forehands into each corner and after 12 minutes he was waiting for the backlash.
Where others strain, Federer cruises. Nobody looks better going 0-3 down and he refused to sacrifice elegance for a street fight. However, Tsitsipas kept grinding, each shot loaded, to go 4-1 up after 20 minutes .
In the seventh game – always pivotal at this level – Federer effortlessly stroked his way to three break points but Tsitsipas served his way out of trouble through two deuce battles and, despite leading 5-2, looked under more pressure than the Swiss.
Serving to keep the set alive after half an hour of uneven tennis on both sides of the net, Federer held to love. A passer-by wandering in at this point would assume it was the Swiss who was winning the match at his leisure.
As Tsitsipas closed on the set, Federer sealed a long rally with a delightful crosscourt winner for his fourth break point of the set but again he could not convert. He saved set point in the ninth game with a drilled backhand return, his sixth winner on that flank.
Tsitsipas, feeling the strain, double-faulted on the second of seven set points before Federer, trusting his talent in every exchange, dumped a tired forehand return after 13 tense minutes. These were surely 46 of the toughest minutes of Tsitsipas’s career but he was a set up on the six-times champion, knowing there was more struggle to come.
The score rarely concerns Federer, who lives very much in the moment, each shot independent of those that have gone before. And on he went, majestically in deficit but seemingly unworried.
He had cause for concern, however, when Tsitsipas broke and held to love inside nine minutes at the start of the second. The anxiety had shifted, almost unnoticed, to the other end and, just past the hour, Tsitsipas was a set and a break up but far from complacent.
Again he had to fight for every point, Federer playing a drop shot to grab his 10 th break point; this time Tsitsipas cracked, a wild forehand, off balance, thrashed beyond the lines. The crowd, already ramped up into a minor frenzy, stood to yell, “Roger! Roger! ”, Much as they had done when their darling was at his bewildering best against Novak Djokovic two nights earlier. Nobody rides a love wave like Federer.
But, unlike Djokovic, Tsitsipas – a set up and on serve – did not shrink from the challenge. He was sweating profusely and far from comfortable but, even as Federer began to find a menacing rhythm, he took him to deuce three times in the fifth game and forced break point after an 18 – shot rally that looked to drain the older man. Federer was flat-footed when Tsitsipas placed his game-winner into empty space and the match was his for the taking if he could keep his composure.
The fervour for Federer that had rippled through the crowd moments earlier dipped in the darkness and went eerily still when Tsitsipas held without noticeable stress for the first time in at least an hour to lead 4-2 half an hour into the second set.
Federer’s fabled reserves of cool looked to be evaporating under the cosh. His legs grew weary, although his imagination remained lively and dangerous. It would take an extraordinary effort to come back from a set and 2-4 down in the semi-final of such a big match against a player as good as Tsitsipas. He had done it before, of course – often – but this time it looked beyond him. The fluency was missing, the precision was irregular and the opponent was willing.
Federer held, edgily, to stay in the contest at 3-5 but, in an hour and 20 minutes, he had not had the luxury of ever being in front; even he was starting to feel the weight of playing from behind. He had to break Tsitsipas to keep alive his slim hopes, and the Greek, serving with new balls, was in no mood to give him a whit of encouragement.
Even a double fault for 15 – 30 did not unsettle him. Federer, tiring visibly, had to hold to stay in the tournament, his 17 th , and his 16 th semi-final. He managed it with one final big serve.
Tsitsipas, enduring nerves for a different reason, surrendered two break points as he served for a place in the final and the crowd returned to a frenzy. Federer botched both and handed him match point with a weary forehand down the line after an hour and 35 minutes. Tsitsipas sealed it with his sixth ace.
When Federer was Tsitsipas’s age, he too had flowing locks and a single-handed backhand, a free-flowing prince of unorthodox genius. All except the hair remains in place.
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