What exactly constitutes a rivalry? – An interesting question posed by Stefanos Tsitsipas after he defeated Andrey Rublev in what was their fifth showdown in the last eight months to clinch a maiden Masters 1000 crown on the clay courts of Monte-Carlo on Sunday.
Tsitsipas adds to family legacy in Monte-Carlo
Greek star wins his first Masters 1000 title and writes a new chapter in his budding rivalry with Rublev.
Tsitsipas’ 6-3, 6-3 victory over Rublev in the Principality saw the 22-year-old inch ahead 4-3 in their head-to-head record and become the first Greek player in history to win a Masters 1000 title.
In a sport that has been dominated by epic rivalries between the superstar quartet of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray over the past 15 years, stars of the younger generation are well aware that they have big shoes to fill, and they’ve been eagerly waiting for that moment where they can steal the spotlight from those evergreen legends of the game.
‘Let the young guns show what they’ve got’
Tsitsipas has been one of the leaders of the youth brigade on the ATP tour and has amassed the second-highest match-wins tally since the start of the 2018 season with 151 victories, trailing only Djokovic’s leading total of 161.
With both Nadal and Djokovic losing before the semi-finals in Monte-Carlo, Tsitsipas stepped up to the plate and grabbed the opportunity when it presented itself to lift his first title at this level.
“Just let the young guns show what they got, I guess. It's how it should be sometimes. Maybe actually always. It's time for always, not sometimes,” the affable Greek told reporters with a laugh ahead of his final against Rublev.
Despite his defeat in the final, Rublev remains at the top of the leaderboard for most match-wins on tour in 2021 (24-5 win-loss).
The 23-year-old Russian – who, like Tsitsipas, was a former junior world No.1 – has picked up 65 victories since the start of 2020, the most among all players on the circuit. Tsitsipas and Djokovic are tied for second place on that list with 51 wins each since the beginning of last season.
‘Variety will make tennis exciting’
Rublev and Tsitsipas go way back and even their junior rivalry was a balanced one as they split their two meetings in 2014 at the Orange Bowl and the Yucatan Cup.
They’ve faced off at the Next Gen ATP Finals, at two of the four Grand Slams, at the Nitto ATP Finals, at 500-level tournaments and now at a Masters 1000.
“We have a rivalry already. It's building up,” Tsitsipas said on Sunday.
“I don't know what's a rivalry, what's considered a rivalry. What, 30 matches? We're going to get there for sure if we play against each other so frequently. I don't see no reason for us not to be there.
“I'm sure I'm going to have not just a rivalry with Andrey. You see back 15 years ago, 10 years ago when Nadal and Federer built one. I feel like in our circumstances, the way it's going to be in this era, there are going to be many more rivalries than just one.
“It won't be singular. Me with [Alexander] Zverev, me with [Jannik] Sinner, me with [Matteo] Berrettini. There are going to be a lot of rivalries out there. I think this variety that tennis is going to receive is going to make it really exciting.”
Unlike the majority of their previous encounters, Sunday’s affair between Tsitsipas and Rublev was fairly one-sided, as the fourth-seeded Greek wrapped up the win in just 71 minutes. Tsitsipas faced zero break points and converted all three break opportunities he created on his opponent’s serve.
That victory felt like a long time coming as Tsitsipas was chasing his maiden Masters 1000 crown on his third final appearance at that level.
For Rublev, the three-set battles he endured against Roberto Bautista Agut and Rafael Nadal seemed to have caught up with him in the final.
“I feel tired after all the matches that I played, exhausted. But this is not an excuse. He was just better than me, and that's it,” confessed the No.6 seed.
Rublev defeated Tsitsipas in the Hamburg final last fall before the latter avenged that defeat with a comfortable straight-sets win in the Roland-Garros quarter-finals just over a week later.
Kind words from Stef
Tsitsipas believes it all comes down to his mentality during his matches with Rublev, and that he learned a lot from their Hamburg clash, which helped him get the better of the Russian in Paris.
They’re already 1-1 against one another this season and Tsitsipas is looking forward to having more duels with Rublev in the future.
“Andrey, I know it’s not easy, I understand, I’ve been in that position myself and I’d like to remind you what a great athlete you are and what incredible matches we’ve played in the past,” a gracious Tsitsipas told the Russian during the trophy ceremony.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to continue playing matches like this, making the sport grow together and learning together.”
Rublev admits he usually takes defeats like this quite “deep” but he is still proud of his week in the Principality, where he defeated his idol Nadal and reached his first Masters 1000 final.
Both Tsitsipas and Rublev have little time to rest as they are both entered in the Barcelona Open, which kicks off on Monday.
Like mother, like son
Tsitsipas begins the new week at the top of the Race to Turin and will need to decompress after an emotional triumph in Monte-Carlo, where he lifted the trophy at the very same club where his mother, Julia Salnikova, won a junior title 40 years ago.
“This is incredible. I think first time I walked in that club, in the Monte Carlo Country Club, with my mom, I think that was when I was six years old. She showed me that name up there. I remember seeing it for the first time. I was, like, stunned. I was like, Wow, that is really cool. How cool is that?” recalls Tsitsipas, who had his whole family courtside on Sunday.
“I didn't think about it in the beginning of the tournament, but it came to my mind when I was playing the semi-finals.
“I was thinking that would be really cool to be in this together, like mother like son. That's where the whole purpose came from. I feel like there was an enormous amount of willingness to want to do more in order to be there with my mom.”