Tsitsipas savouring rise of ‘Team Greece’

Stefanos Tsitsipas is delighted that it’s not just him flying the flag proudly for Greek tennis

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland Garros 2018©Cedric Lecocq / FFT
 - Ian Chadband

As Stefanos Tsitsipas was walking away from a tough practice session on Court 4 at Roland-Garros on Thursday, the first thing the Greek youngster wanted to hear was how Valentini Grammatikopoulou was getting on in the second round of women’s qualifying.

“She’s one set up? Fantastic, great!” enthused Tsitsipas, on hearing that his 22-year-old compatriot was en route to one of her best wins over Britain’s Heather Watson.

The idea that the game’s newest superstar, one of the favourites for the men’s title here, was eager to hear about the progress of the 193rd-ranked player tells you much about the close camaraderie which is inspiring the rise of Greek tennis.

Tsitsipas might come over as the Hellenic flagbearer but he doesn’t see it that way. “No, I would like to say ‘we’, not ‘me’, because we are a team,” he explained, adamant that it’s not just his flamboyant brilliance but also the exploits of the country’s top two women, Maria Sakkari and Grammatikopoulou, that is currently behind the rise of the sport in Greece.

“I don’t see it as an individual thing but a team thing. I’m really happy for both Maria and Valentini when they win, and I’m trying to follow them as much as I can,” said Tsitsipas.

“It’s inspiring to see such young great athletes in Greece. I think we can do a lot more things in the future, maybe we can win big titles, maybe make tennis in Greece one of the top sports to play and to watch.

“And I really think we are getting there; we’re having much more success and much more TV exposure back home. Tennis is already popular; more people than ever are watching and talking about it. It’s lovely.”

Trio of trailblazers

The trio really are hoping to prove trailblazers as currently the only three Greek players among the world’s top 450 on the men and women’s tours.

World No.5 Tsitsipas, the youngest of the three at just 20, may be creating the biggest waves this year with his magnificent breakthrough that has seen him reach the Australian Open semi-final, beating Roger Federer en route, and taking out Rafa Nadal on clay while reaching the final of the Madrid Open. 

Yet Sakkari, three years his senior, has made her own exceptional mark too this year, as as she’s shot up to a career-high 29 in the rankings, winning her maiden WTA title on clay in Rabat on the very same weekend this month that Tsitsipas also annexed his first clay-court title in Estoril.

This unique double for Greek tennis thrilled Tsitsipas, but he has been just as impressed by the progress Grammatikopoulou, who was just one round away from the main draw on Friday after a win that showcased a considerable fighting spirit when she saved two match points en route to beating Watson.

“Valentini hasn’t found her maximum potential yet but she can break into the top 100, I’m pretty positive about it,” Tsitsipas said. “She has a great game, very aggressive game for her height - she’s not very tall, unfortunately - but she has a very good baseline game.

“Along with Maria, we’re all inspiring the young kids from Greece and we really all want to get people to go out and play tennis. So it’s really great to have this rise, as you can call it. Before, people have not seen players coming out of Greece and playing at such levels.”

Grammatikopoulou explained that the three of them rarely saw each other because of their different schedules and bases - Tsitsipas and Sakkari are mainly based in Monte Carlo while she shares her time between Thessaloniki and a Dutch base in The Hague - but they all shared a pride in flying the flag for Greece.

Proud to be Greek

“For sure, we’re a team. I’m really proud to be Greek,” said Grammatikopoulou who, like Tsitsipas, has a Russian mother. “We are a small country with economic problems and we didn’t have anyone (in tennis) and so now it’s really unbelievable for me because I can watch Stefanos and Maria and they can really inspire me.”

Indeed, all three remain so close that when Sakkari received a €30,000 grant from the Greek Olympic Committee last year to help with her preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Games, she immediately requested that it be split and shared with the other two. “We’re all working hard and we all deserve the same amount of money,” she said at the time.

“She’s unbelievable to have done that, a very nice, kind person,” said Tsitsipas. “But then we are all supporting each other. We’re a small country with not much history in tennis but we’re trying to change that, and being together, staying together, is important because we’re stronger like that.”