03:04 PM GMT January 23, 2019
Reigning Next Gen ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas made what was his biggest breakthrough at the time last August at the Rogers Cup. The Greek defeated four Top 10 opponents en route to the final of the ATP Masters 1000 event, showing his ability to compete against the best players in the world on one of tennis’ biggest stages.
But in the championship match, Tsitsipas ran into a bulldozer in Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard dismissed the second-time ATP Tour finalist in straight sets to lift his record 33rd Masters 1000 title.
“I remember coming back to the locker room and promising to myself I'm going to do much better against him next time,” Tsitsipas said after beating Roberto Bautista Agut in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Tuesday. “It felt like I understood a bit better what he was doing on the court after that match, and especially on hard court.”
Tsitsipas will have a chance to prove what he learned, and that opportunity just happens to come in the biggest match of his life. The 20-year-old, competing in the last four of a major for the first time, confronts Nadal in the semi-finals of the year's first Grand Slam on Rod Laver Arena.
Watch Highlights Of The 2018 Toronto Final:
Nadal, the 2009 Australian Open champion, is not thinking about that match in Canada. In fact, he's not looking back at the pair’s first FedEx ATP Head2Head clash last year in the Barcelona final — in which the Spaniard lost just three games in a 78-minute victory — either.
“He's a player that, what happened in the past, I don't know if it’s going to have a great impact or not [on] what can happen [in the semi-finals],” Nadal said. “When you face these young players, they are in permanent improvement. He's with confidence. He won a lot of good matches. [It] will be a tough one.
“You are in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam, you can't expect an easy opponent. Stefanos is one of the best players of the world. To have the chance to be in that final, I need to play my best, and that's what I am looking for.”
Nadal has been ruthless off the ground in his first tournament since the 2018 US Open semi-finals, showing no rust after four months away due to injury. In five matches, the Spaniard has hit 169 winners to just 99 unforced errors, playing aggressively without making many mistakes. He is the only man remaining who has not dropped a set.
But Tsitsipas brings an intriguing game to the court. His forehand is his strength, like Nadal. But while a player like Juan Martin del Potro is dangerous off that wing with his ability to blow opponents off the court, the Greek uses tremendous variety with his forehand to create openings in which he finishes points.
Tsitsipas strikes his inside-out forehand with a bit of sidespin that makes the ball tail away from opponents. Tsitsipas is also comfortable hitting an inside-in forehand, which means he goes down the line from the backhand side of the court. The Greek does not fear the forecourt, either, winning 65 per cent (124/192 points) of his net points this fortnight.
In the fourth round, Tsitsipas earned his stepping-into-the-sun moment by rallying from the brink of a two-set deficit against six-time champion Roger Federer to oust the Swiss legend in four sets. Tsitsipas impressed in his Toronto run in 2018, won his maiden ATP Tour title later in the year in Stockholm and capped it off with a splendid performance in Milan to capture the Next Gen ATP Finals crown. But this was arguably the 6'4" right-hander's best performance yet, and he will look to replicate that against Nadal.
“He's a charismatic player. Good shots from both sides, good serve,” Nadal said. “It’s a good challenge for me. I hope to be ready for it. I think I am playing well.”
And the second seed has been doing just that for quite some time. While this may be Nadal’s first tournament in four months, the Spaniard is 117-15 since the start of 2017. During that time, Nadal has lost just six times against opponents ranked outside the Top 10. Two of those six losses came against Federer and Novak Djokovic.
But don't expect Tsitsipas to shy away from the moment because of that. In the past nine months, he owns a 7-7 record against Top 10 opponents and if he defeats Nadal, he will crack the Top 10 himself for the first time, which is an incredible accomplishment considering this time last year the #NextGenATP star owned just four tour-level wins.
“We know that Stefanos is one of these players that can win against everybody,” Nadal said. “It was a surprise but not a very big surprise [that he beat Federer]. I know Stefanos is ready to win against everybody.”
The question on Thursday will be, is he ready to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam semi-final?