One by one at this Australian Open, the big three in men’s tennis brushed aside their ‘Next Gen’ challengers – until Roger Federer met Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 20-year-old Greek ended Federer’s reign in Melbourne when he defeated the twice defending champion 6-7 (11-13) 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 7-6 (7-5) at Rod Laver Arena to achieve a maiden grand slam quarterfinal.
Much of the crowd in Sunday’s night session were sure to be stunned given the result but, unusually for a Federer match, Tsitsipas also received a healthy dose of support against his idol.
Indeed a chunk of Melbourne’s large Greek community have roared on both world No. 15 Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari – ousted in the third round – at Melbourne Park.
“This match point is going to stay (with me), I’m pretty much sure, forever, for the rest of my life,” Tsitsipas told reporters. “I just managed to close that match and stay strong, beat my idol. My idol today became pretty much my rival,” he added later.
Federer wasn’t the only big name to tumble, with Maria Sharapova falling to home hope Ashleigh Barty earlier on center court.
Tsitsipas, Barty, Roberto Bautista Agut, Frances Tiafoe and Danielle Collins all reached the last eight at a major for the first time, an unusually high number.
Federer has been in the latter stages of majors so many times in his record-breaking career, but the 37-year-old now finds himself in a grand slam slump.
The Swiss, who went an unbelievable 0-for-12 on break points to Tsitsipas, lost in the fourth round of a grand slam for the second straight time having exited at the hands of Australia’s John Millman at the US Open.
The ‘r’ question – retirement – though wasn’t thrown to Federer in his post-match press conference.
“I lost to a better player who was playing very well tonight,” said Federer. “Hung in there, gave himself chances at some point, stayed calm. It’s not always easy, especially for younger guys. Credit to him for taking care of that.”
He hit back at John McEnroe after the outspoken seven-time grand slam winner claimed the contest was a changing of the guard moment.
“He’s in front of the mic a lot,” said Federer. “He’s always going to say stuff. I love John. I’ve heard that story the last 10 years. From that standpoint, nothing new there.”
Defeats after winning the first set in Melbourne are rare for the Swiss – he had been 87-2, having only fallen to Marat Safin in 2005 and Rafael Nadal in 2012.
Safin and Nadal are grand slam winners and former No. 1s and based on Sunday’s performance one wouldn’t discount Tsitsipas from matching those achievements.
For a start Tsitsipas wants to keep going in Melbourne.
“I feel good,” he said. “I really want it badly. I really want to proceed further in the tournament to make myself happy and the people that are cheering for me happy.
“I really like this atmosphere that’s on the court, the whole dynamic of it, I would say. It just feels so nice to be playing on these courts. It’s spectacular. I really want to stay here as long as possible. That’s my goal.”
Lucky to be alive
He almost didn’t reach this stage, however. According to the ATP he nearly drowned as a teenager and had to be saved by his father, who is also his main coach. Tsitsipas’ mum was a former pro.
It was a family affair for Tsitsipas in his player box, which also included the famous coach with Greek heritage, Patrick Mouratoglou. Tsitsipas trains at Mouratoglou’s academy near Nice. The coach will be hoping the upset bug doesn’t hit his main pupil, Serena Williams, in Monday’s blockbuster against world No. 1 Simona Halep.
It was Federer and Tsitsipas’ first official meeting, though going head-to-head at the Hopman Cup in Perth earlier in January no doubt helped the underdog. Stage fright against men’s tennis’ most successful grand slam performer had to have lessened Sunday.
Federer recalled that he didn’t break Tsitsipas in Perth, either.
Tsitsipas showed tremendous composure to bounce back from a marathon first-set tiebreak in which he held three set points.
Federer usually steps on the accelerator, quickly pouncing in ensuing sets, yet let Tsitsipas off the hook in the second. And he knew it.
“I have massive regrets tonight,” said Federer. “I might not look the part, but I am. I felt like I have to win the second set. I don’t care how I do it, but I have to do it. Cost me the game tonight.”
He failed to take any of his eight break chances in three different games, including four set points at 5-4. Even the great Federer was bound to suffer a dip after Tsitsipas leveled at one set apiece.
Tsitsipas duly grew in confidence and flashed his pleasing all-around game, hitting powerful shots, striking aces – hitting 20 in total – going to the net and playing excellent defense.
Finding it more and more difficult to blast past his 6-foot-4 rival, Federer began to use more drop shots, with mixed success.
“Conditions changed throughout the match like every year when you start at 7 (p.m.), go into the night,” he said. “It gets harder to go through the opponent. Yeah I thought conditions were definitely a bit slower this year than last year. Didn’t allow for as much variation, to be quite honest.”
Tsitsipas pounced in the final game of the third and – after getting his right leg rubbed by the trainer – closed out proceedings in another tiebreak.
At 5-5 in the tiebreak, Federer struck a forehand long. A late call from the linesperson led many in the stadium to believe the ball was good. Federer challenged and was proved incorrect.
And on his first match point, Tsitsipas powered a forehand to force a backhand error.
Joy for Tsitsipas but a Greek tragedy for Federer.