The serial reimaginings of Stefanos Tsitsipas

The Greek player-philosopher has a deep connection with Roland Garros, but is "letting go" there the key to breaking through?

It’s only fitting that Tsitsipas would assign the red clay courts at Roland Garros an ineffable quality, given how diligently he’s labored to win on that rust-colored battleground. And like the courts of which he spoke so lovingly, Tsitsipas has become good at wiping the slate clean and starting afresh.

The flamboyant 24-year-old from Greece lost the 2021 Roland Garros final to Novak Djokovic after leading two sets to none. But back in the round of 16 for the fifth consecutive year, he’s communicating as happily with those mysterious courts as he is with the world press.

Tsitsipas has lost just one set, in the always jitter-inducing first round, so far in this edition of Roland Garros. With three rounds done, he led all comers in two key categories: winners (138) and first-serve points won (79 percent). He was second in net-points won and third in break-point conversion (45 percent). He’s on a quarterfinal collision course with Spanish sensation and top seed Carlos Alcaraz, but he’s cool with it, as some comments he made earlier in the week attest.

“I had a practice session with Carlitos the other day,” Tsitsipas explained. “And I threw in a “thank you” just randomly, but I don’t know if he understood that or not. I owe a lot to Carlitos, because he’s such a breath of fresh air, the fact that he’s on the tour. . .He’s so competitive and [yet] he’s always with a smile on his face, and so much charisma to him and so much positive energy that he distributes. Last year during preseason I was, like, ‘I want to apply that more into my game [too].’”

Tsitsipas is a big fan of Alcaraz, and the two could meet in the quarterfinals.

Tsitsipas is a big fan of Alcaraz, and the two could meet in the quarterfinals.

Is this the same dude who periodically spars with Daniil Medvedev; who was called out by model sportsman Andy Murray for taking an extra-long bathroom break during their long battle at the 2021 US Open (“I think he’s a brilliant player but I lost respect for him,” Murray told reporters); who was accused by generational rival Alexander Zverev—and too many others to count—of accepting clandestine coaching from his father repeatedly in defiance of ATP rules? (Regulations which have since been changed to allow coaching from the box seats.)

Tsitsipas hasn’t flat-out said that he’s turned over a new leaf, but he’s proving to be a man who sees his career as a journey of self-discovery and serial reimaginings. You can see it in the humility with which he described his interaction with Alcaraz, the apparent truce with Medvedev, the abstract ruminations that contain a strong whiff of Eastern philosophy (the next stop on his journey?). In all this, Tsitsipas is becoming the current generation’s version of another long-haired heartthrob who loved the red clay and performed magic on it with a spectacular one-handed backhand, Guillermo Vilas.

That greatest champion from Argentina, Vilas also aired deep thoughts, sometimes spoke in riddles, and wrote poetry. Another point of similarity between Vilas and Tsitsipas: Vilas won the vast majority of his 62 career titles on clay, but only one at Roland Garros, where was consistently overshadowed by Bjorn Borg. Tsitsipas also has a red-clay nemesis in Novak Djokovic, who is 5-0 on clay against the Greek at Roland Garros and other clay Masters 1000 events. But Tsitsipas’ tendency to reimagine himself may help him overcome that.

I’ve produced some really good tennis when I’m at a psychological state of nothing matters, and I don’t care anymore.Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tsitsipas admires some of his most lethal rivals and, unlike many of them, he’s inclined to let it be known, even to offer up that he is emulating them. He’s also a dedicated student of the game with a special interest in the mental aspects of competition. After his second-round match, he spoke of the “two different psychological states” that are productive for him. They can be broken down simply as playing as if everything matters and, at the opposite pole, as if nothing matters.

“I’ve produced some really good tennis when I’m at a psychological state of nothing matters, and I don’t care anymore,” he said. “And I just want to play it. I don’t care what the outcome will be. At moments like that, I have broken back, suddenly found my rhythm [and gotten] back into the game.”

Those moments, he said, represent a rejection of the constant thinking, the constant analyses, the relentless decision making—all things that tend to suppress creativity—because, “Every ball that is thrown at you, you have to make a decision.” He added that letting all that go, when you kind of “tank” and embrace all that freedom, can lead to a better outcome.

We’ll see how Tsitsipas’ understanding and complex ideas about the game, and the mentality required to succeed, help him earn that coveted first major title at the tournament where he has come closest. Whether clay is “spiritual” or not may be debatable, but appreciating and loving it—embracing it—can be a great asset to a competitor. Tsitsipas certainly sounds like he’s ready to build even further on his already excellent 21-6 record at Roland Garros.

“My capacity is big and grand,” he declared shortly before the tournament began. “I can feel it. I just need to get a few good first matches to keep believing that I actually can do something this year

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