“If you are just one day on, one day off with your emotions, they can cost you,” Stefanos Tsitsipas said this week ahead of the Australian Open.
The Greek star, 21, was speaking after making headlines at the ATP Cup earlier in January for his on-court outburst in which he physically injured his father while wildly slashing his racket in anger.
The tantrum earned Tsitsipas a stern reprimand from his mother, who was also courtside, but the Greek was far from the only member of tennis’s so-called Next Gen of stars to cause a scene for all the wrong reasons at the tournament in Australia.
Germany’s Alexander Zverev, 22, launched into an expletive-laden rant in Russian at his dad on the sidelines (during a crushing defeat to Tsitsipas, as it happens), while Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, 23, risked serious sanction by slamming the umpire’s chair twice with his racket twice during an ill-tempered victory over Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman.
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“I was really embarrassed to see myself in such a situation. I guess I was just holding everything and it exploded at some point,” Tsitsipas said this week, as he prepares to start his Australian Open campaign against Italy’s Caruso on Monday.
“I’ve been really working on this. I think being balanced in my head and thinking in a straight line will help me. I’m going to try it. I mean, I hope it helps me grow as a player.”
Like Medvedev and Zverev, Tsitsipas is prodigiously talented, but growing as players is what all three need to do if they are to unseat tennis’s Big Three and taste Grand Slam success for the first time.
Indeed, heading into Melbourne, tennis is in familiar territory with the longtime ruling triumvirate of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer seeded as the top three Down Under.
Between them, the veteran trio have shared 14 of the past 16 Australian Open titles; among all four majors, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won the last 12 in a row.
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Those stats again make ominous reading for Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas – the three players who have emerged as the most likely from the under-25 generation to break the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic stranglehold.
Russia’s Medvedev is seeded fourth in Australia, with Tsitsipas sixth and Zverev seventh.
While the three share the potential to break the Grand Slam stranglehold of tennis’s elder statesmen, they also have a shared propensity for dubious on-court antics – as witnessed again at the ATP Cup.
The unsavory scenes there even led some observers to wonder whether the respected old guard was being replaced by a band of tennis brats.
If *this* is not an instant default, then what exactly does it take to get defaulted?
— Bastien Fachan (@BastienFachan) January 9, 2020
That may sound like a harsh assessment of three fine young players, but it’s hard to see how racket-smashing, family rows, umpire insults and meltdowns can aid their cause as they go up against three men in Nadal, Federer and Djokovic who, despite their advancing years, continue to hold a vice-like grip at the top of the sport.
Each of Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev has shown they can win showpiece events. The latter two have won the season-ending ATP Finals in the past two years; Tsitsipas also claimed a Big Three scalp at last year’s Australian Open when he knocked out Federer on his way to the semifinals.
Medvedev, whose 6ft 6in frame and big baseline game make him one of the most awkward customers in men’s tennis, came closest of all to making a Grand Slam breakthrough at the US Open final in September when he lost a five-set epic against Nadal.
But even that run to the final was not without controversy, as the Russian waged a running battle with the New York crowd before finally making peace, perhaps realizing that it’s generally easier to have the fans with you rather than against you.
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Tsitsipas’s recent statements signal the same. The three young stars have emerged in an especially unforgiving era, in which to win a Grand Slam it’s almost inevitable that you will have to beat one, or possibly even two of the greatest players ever to pick up a racket.
The current situation in Australia, where bushfires have ravaged large areas of the country and caused serious issues with smoke during qualifying in Melbourne, will likely add to the tensions for players over the next weeks. An extra-cool head will be needed from Tsitsipas et al.
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Of course, the riposte will be that we have seen countless tennis bad boys down the years, many of whom have had considerable success. American ‘Superbrat’ John McEnroe was as a prime example; after all, his legendary outbursts didn’t prevent him from playing his way to seven Grand Slam titles.
Nadal, 33, recently claimed he had never smashed a racket in his life, but even Federer had a reputation as something of a brat when he was emerging on the scene. Djokovic, 32, has had more than his fair share of run-ins with umpires and crowds around the world, and continues to simmer over on occasion.
But in the case of the Swiss maestro, 38, he learned to curb his anger early on and has never looked back. Djokovic can still be belligerent, but has harnessed his intensity to his advantage, developing an iron will and laser-like focus which has helped him win 16 Grand Slams.
Indeed, why waste effort on smashing rackets, riling crowds and picking fights with opponents and umpires? It can fire you up, sure, but more likely it will distract and drain energy.
So as the opportunity again comes knocking for the young generation of tennis players to make their mark at a Grand Slam, each of Tsitsipas, Medvedev and Zverev would be better off checking in any histrionics at the door in Melbourne.
Temperament as well as talent will be crucial if this is to be the year the Next Gen make their Grand Slam breakthrough.
By Liam Tyler