For Tsitsipas, small improvements bring big gains at RG

 - Stephanie Livaudais

Greek world No.4 reveals how he’s working to close the gap between himself and players ahead of him

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland Garros 2022, third round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

At the very top of the pyramid in professional tennis, the differences that separate one elite player from another become increasingly more razor thin the higher you go.

Last year’s finalist, Stefanos Tsitsipas knows this well.

He could go on to win this Roland-Garros, lifting his first Grand Slam trophy in the biggest moment of his career to date, and he would only gain one spot in the ATP rankings, from world No.4 back to his previous career-high No.3.

The 23-year-old Greek has been a permanent resident of the top five since breaking through in March last year, shortly after his run to the Australian Open semi-finals.

And while he’s since tightened the gap between himself and those above, being at the top has made Tsitsipas appreciate even more the effort that it takes to get there – and stay there.

“I respect the top three (a lot) for having been so incredibly consistent the last couple of years,” Tsitsipas said after his third-round victory in Paris. “I don't think there is anything behind it… I don't believe in those things.”

Hard work has been the theme for the Greek at Roland-Garros during his third consecutive fourth-round appearance. Tsitsipas had to fight back from a two-set deficit in his opening match against 20-year-old Lorenzo Musetti to win 5-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, and in the next match he battled for four hours to defeat Zdenek Kolar, a qualifier ranked No.134.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland-Garros 2022, Simple Messieurs, 3eme TourCorinne Dubreuil / FFT

His tidy straight-sets win over Mikael Ymer, clocking in at just over 90 minutes on Court Suzanne-Lenglen on Saturday, felt like the perfect way for Tsitsipas to let go of any lingering nerves and settle into the second week of the tournament.

It’s an increasingly familiar place for Tsitsipas, who is also a four-time Grand Slam semi-finalist in Paris and Melbourne, and a familiar sight in the second weeks at majors.

He has also scored multiple victories over the players in front of him in the rankings: Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev. But he hasn’t maintained the consistency to defeat them in big finals and for big titles on a regular basis – something the world No.4 has signalled as one of his next targets.

“I have questioned myself, how do I become a better athlete?” he said. “These guys (the Top 3) have pushed me to become a better athlete. I question myself, what can I add to my life that can eventually help me achieve more and do more and do better in terms of my career?

“Every day is a question: What can I add?”

For Tsitsipas, part of the equation is found on the practice court and the other part in how he approaches every tennis’ player’s second full-time job: looking out for his body. The 23-year-old said his diet and fitness had improved in leaps and bounds since his rise to the tour's upper echelons.

“Looking back on the diet that I had, let's say, three or four years ago, it's nothing compared to what I have now,” he explained. “I'm very professional and very conscious of what I consume and what I eat every day.

“In terms of fitness, this is something that I have questioned a lot, as well. How much more can I push and bring my body to the limits, in order to be at ease when I'm on the court and be able to withstand all that physical pressure of playing long matches and having to push after every single shot and endurance and all that?”

Tsitsipas is also known as one of tennis’ thinkers, a quality that regularly endears him to fans and media alike. Indeed, at Roland-Garros he was asked by a journalist to ponder his own life’s unanswered questions, and gave an eloquent and philosophical reply.

When the mind and body are sound, everything else follows.

Tsitsipas has been keen to strike the right work-life balance to keep himself focused and grounded.

“It hasn't been easy, but I kind of really felt like – well, in better control of my life right now, I think,” he said. “Being focused and having control around me without relying too much on other people's feelings and other people in general.

“I put myself a little bit more in front than I used to before, which I think has helped a lot.”

Tsitsipas will face 19-year-old Holger Rune in the fourth round on Monday.