'Underdog' Tsitsipas aiming for surprises

 - Chris Oddo

Last year's semi-finalist tries to ease the pressure off his shoulders as enters RG in scintillating form

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

The last thing Stefanos Tsitsipas wants to do in Paris is get too far ahead of himself.

The Greek, who currently sits atop the ATP’s Race to Turin, also leads the tour in victories with 33. Though he's emerged as the pundit's pick to make it through the bottom half of the Roland-Garros men's singles draw and into the final, the world No.5 still views himself as an underdog.

“I want to play Roland-Garros like I'm not the favourite,” he said last week in Lyon, clearly intent to ease the pressure that inevitably comes with entering a Grand Slam in such menacing form. 

Asked to elaborate on that statement on Friday in Paris, Tsitsipas admitted he has a thing for surprises.

"First of all, whenever I play, I want to be the surprise of the tournament. That's what I like most about it," he said.

This year at Roland-Garros, inserted into the lower half of the draw, far away from 'King of Clay' Rafael Nadal and 2016 champion Novak Djokovic, Tsitsipas’ chances of reaching his first Grand Slam final have increased dramatically before play has even started in Paris. 

Seeing Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer all tucked into the top half is viewed as welcome news by Tsitsipas, but he doesn't want to dwell on it.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

"Finally, for once," he said of the draw oddity, with a glowing smile.

Though he’ll not have to worry about Nadal or Djokovic until - potentially - the final, Tsitsipas wants to make it clear that he’s not intimidated by either.  

“I'm ready to face any of them, and I'm pumped to face any of them,” he says. “I see no reason to fear them, they might be playing great and I might be playing great.

"Every single match against them gives me the opportunity to put myself at my top level and I'll be prepared for the best of the game." 

No fear, no pressure. Many talk the talk, but Tsitsipas comes across as a player that is confident in his walking powers.

He is perfectly prepared for his Roland-Garros test, having won 16 of 19 matches on clay in the build-up and with two titles under his belt so far this season.

Even his heartbreaking loss to Nadal in the Barcelona final, where he held a championship point before bowing out, should serve him well.

"I've been feeling my game well, I've been using my patterns really well, I've been pressing a lot with my serve. Just consistent on court, consistent with my power, with the way I attack and the way I risk," said Tsitsipas, who practiced with US Open champion and two-time Roland-Garros runner-up Dominic Thiem on Thursday.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

"I think it would be considered my best [Grand Slam preparation] so far. Now all the attention, all the focus is next week." 

A Tsitsipas breakthrough may not surprise the fans who come through the gates to watch him during the Paris fortnight, but what he perceives is what really counts.

A semi-finalist last year, where he lost a five-setter to Djokovic, Tsitsipas knows that there is one sure way to stun the public.

"Anything better than semi-finals, I guess that would be a surprise," said Tsitsipas, who opens his Roland-Garros campaign on Sunday against French veteran Jeremy Chardy. "Yeah, why not?"