04:15 PM GMT April 14, 2019
Stefanos Tsitsipas remembers the moment vividly.
"You see that walkway over there? The one next to the practice courts," he says, pointing across the grounds at the Monte-Carlo Country Club. "That's where I first met Novak Djokovic. I was quite young and it was my first time here."
The year was 2008 and an eight-year-old Tsitsipas recalls being in awe as the then-World No. 3 Serbian passed in front of him and stopped to take a photo.
"I have very nice feelings coming here to Monte-Carlo. I actually have a photo with Djokovic here when I was eight. My father told him that one day we'll play each other. It seemed crazy at the time, but here we are now," said Tsitsipas. "I have the picture somewhere. It's at my home. I need to find it. There are no limitations in Novak's game and we've seen that many times."
Now, 11 years later, Djokovic and Tsitsipas are on a collision course at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. With both players seeking deep runs at the third ATP Masters 1000 event of the year, a potential blockbuster quarter-final clash looms large. And Tsitsipas already has the formula to knock off the World No. 1, having prevailed against Djokovic in three sets at the 2018 Rogers Cup.
First, Tsitsipas will have to get past either Jeremy Chardy or Mikhail Kukushkin in his opener, with 10th seed Daniil Medvedev also a dangerous threat in his quarter of the draw. But the Greek is well aware of the difficulties in transitioning from hard to clay. He is taking it one match at a time in his first tournament on the dirt in 10 months.
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"After a long period on the hard courts, it's been a while since I've been on clay," said Tsitsipas. "It was probably June of last year actually. It's a different surface and with that a different mindset. There are a lot of things I have to get used to. I feel confident and that my game has developed since last year. I've learned a lot of things and I'm happy that I'm bringing them into the clay-court season this year.
"There's still some things to improve and adjust faster. I've said this many times, but the transition from hard to clay is the toughest of them all. It's a different ballgame. You have to be more patient and as I said last year, it's a game of chess basically. Having good variety and knowing when to go down the line and stay cross-court is very important."
Last year, in his Monte-Carlo debut, Tsitsipas made an immediate splash with a straight-set win over fellow #NextGenATP star Denis Shapovalov. A qualifier, he would eventually fall to David Goffin in the second round, but the 20-year-old admits the tournament was the springboard to a successful clay-court campaign. A first ATP Tour final would come the following week in Barcelona, with a subsequent semi-final finish in Estoril.
"Clay is the surface I've played the most on over the years. When I come back to it, I feel very comfortable and familiar with what I have to do. I have a better connection with clay than any other surface."