What a crazy final is in store Sunday at the Toronto Masters. Back again is the familiar Big 4 name of Rafael Nadal, but his opponent is Stefanos Tsitsipas who beat not one, not two, not three but four straight Top 10 players consecutively to make the biggest final of his very young career.
The Greek who was outside the Top 160 and playing Challengers in Slovenia a year ago, is now inside the Top 20 and after this week has put himself among the very best of this uber-talented group of kids. And he’s just 19. Well, now 20!
“I’m living the dream,” Tsitsipas said his second straight win over Kevin Anderson. “I’m playing amazing. I’m enjoying it more than ever out on the court with the crowd. It’s been the key factor. They have helped me so much to win all those matches. It feels like I’m playing Davis Cup and everyone is backing me up and they’re so supportive.
“Four wins against top 10 players. I would never imagined that I could pull this out in a single tournament. It’s just — it’s not — we’re not used to that.”
No, we are not used to that because no one has beaten four in a row at a regular event since JW Tsonga at 2014 Toronto.
So how did he do it? Well, he got some confidence at Wimbledon making the fourth round, then reached the semifinals in D.C. and this week beat up again on the fledgling Dominic Thiem, then got over a listless-looking Novak Djokovic. Alexander Zverev followed by flat-out gagging up 6-3, 5-2, though you have credit Tsitsipas in the end for gutting that one out.
And then today he held firm against US Open and Wimbledon finalist Anderson in a 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6(7) nailbiter. What’s most impressive about the teen is that he’s been so clutch (as they said on TV, and I agree). On big points, he comes up big. Contrast that with Zverev Friday who shriveled when the going got tough, this kid keeps his cool and play some of his best tennis when it means the most.
Today, that was really the difference. Anderson had 3-4 chances in the third to break but Tsitsipas just came up with the better tennis. And he did it again in the final set breaker (save for the double fault at 6-4 which he thought was 5-3!) hitting a crosscourt screamer of a backhand down matchpoint.
“My serve,” Tsitsipas credited. “I managed to save so many break points today. He had so many break points. I don’t remember exactly how many, but I remember I had to save a few of them.
“And I think he never did made the return on my serve. And psychologically I think it kind of annoyed him that he knew that he couldn’t start a really whenever he had the chance. So I guess I found solutions on his serve. And then he got tired because he understood I could add more variety on my serve, and he was basically doing one thing every single time.”
Tsitsipas has a very strong, all-around game. Decent serve, very solid forehand, good backhand and he showed again today that he’s capable at the net. And like he said, he also thinks about solutions and as we saw, he’s not afraid to make adjustments.
Where he has issues is his movement and his second serve, which Anderson couldn’t take advantage of when he had to.
So he’s going only one place, and that’s higher in the rankings. And if he improves that second serve, there’s no doubt he could be No. 1 someday. He’s got the “clutch gene”, and few have it and it’s something you can’t just learn.
Meanwhile, Anderson just could not get that one extra ball back or hit that second serve return over the net. The opportunity to make that first Masters final was there for taking.
“It’s obviously incredibly difficult losing a match like that where it’s so close at such a big stage of the tournament,” Anderson said. “I did what I could. I thought he played some really good tennis, especially when it mattered the most. I had a couple of break points end of the second set and then in the third set too. He didn’t miss a first serve. He played really well then.
“On the one match point that I had, he came up with an unbelievable backhand crosscourt winner. So it was a very impressive effort from him.”
In the final, it’s Nadal. And Rafa’s out for his first hardcourt Masters since 2013. Rafa hung on to beat Stan Wawrinka Thursday night, then waited out Marin Cilic to come off his high to win in three yesterday.
Tonight, against Masters semifinal debutant Karen Khachanov, it was much more straightforward. After a 2-hour rain delay and after trading early breaks, the two slugged it out until Nadal took control in the breaker.
Nadal broke early again in the second and scored the 7-6(3), 6-4 win. Khachanov bullied Nadal a little with his awesome power, but Rafa was too tough.
“He’s a great server,” Nadal said of the Russian. “Hits big shots from the baseline. He has an especially great backhand and he can hit the forehand very strong too. It’s true with the forehand sometimes he has mistakes too, but he plays very aggressive and he hits the ball very strong.
“I needed to resist and play aggressive. When I was able to move him, I think I was a little bit more in control. But it’s difficult to make that happen because he hits the ball very strong.”
Khachanov is just 22 and like Zverev and Tsitsipas, he too is going to be a Top 5 kind of player. At 6’6″, he’s got the requisite massive game, and he moves OK. He just needs better coaching, shot selection and some form of defense. Fortunately, time is on his side.
As for tomorrow…
Rafael Nadal v Stefanos Tsitsipas
Conventional wisdom these days is that after playing so much tennis beating top players, Tsitsipas has to be gassed. Well, I’m not so sure. It hasn’t been that hot in Toronto this week and he’s just 20. So he should be OK and if he is feeling any fatigue, that challenge of playing against Rafa in a Masters should offset that.
“I’m going to give 100% on the court. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to die. I’m just going to give it my best shot,” Tsitsipas said.
And that’s the right attitude.
So I think he’ll be good to go. Problem is, so too will Rafa. Yes, after so many night matches, Nadal is playing in the day. But it shouldn’t matter much.
Rafa blew out Tsitsipas on his turf in Barcelona on the clay. This quicker surface and should aid the Greek who’s playing much better now. That said, my guess is Rafa’s going to back to well as he does so often against one-handed backhand guys, and just attack that side relentlessly with his forehand. And get the big kid moving moving.
“He’s a complex player. He has everything. He’s young. Has passion for the game. He has a great forehand, great backhand, good serve. So he’s not about one thing. He’s about everything,” Rafa said.
Tsitsipas will have to serve well as he’s been doing, and be solid off the ground. Maybe go for more on the forehand and work the slice off the backhand.
“I feel like my forehand is on fire at this moment,” Tsitsipas said. “Hopefully it can remain like this tomorrow because it will be super important for me, the win tomorrow.
“I feel like I can do anything with those two shots. And my backhand, of course, the down-the-line backhand, change directions, make the opponent guess of where I’m going to play.”
I feel the youngster will get some chances on Rafa’s serve, but I think Rafa will have his share of looks on Tstisipas’s second serve, as well.
But as I said, I think the kid is clutch and he converts just enough to make this an interesting final. Though the run ends here and Rafa’s not going to do any favors for him on his birthday. Nope.
The Pick: Nadal in three
Could Tsitsipas win it? Of course. Rafa hasn’t won a Masters on cement in five years and the kid has no pressure, no expectations just like he’s had all week. So why not?
“Just another day at the office,” Tsitsipas added. “Doesn’t matter. It’s a final. I will not see it as a final. I will just think of it as just another match here in Toronto in a beautiful city.”
See, simple. It’s just another match. Ha ha.
Regardless, Tsitsipas is the story of the tournament like Denis Shapovalov was a year ago. And add his name to the growing list of guys who are going to be playing the final weekend of Slams for many years to come.
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