Written by Staff Writer
Who is Stefanos Tsitsipas? He is a Greek teenager who is ranked in the top 10 and was ranked 68th as recently as January.
From his practice space, roughly a 10-minute walk from the main court at the O2 Arena, Tsitsipas played the tournament as if it were his eighth. “You have to go into every tournament with the attitude of winning,” he said. He would have gone further had it not been for his stomach ailment, which doctors had put down to extreme fatigue. In Russia, many of the top players will struggle to raise their games to the required level on clay, but Tsitsipas is adept at doing so, particularly in the red dirt.
This is tennis — but the tournament is much more than that. It is also one of the oldest games in the world, with Ireland’s Billie FitzGerald as the first female professional player. “Every year, some new kid comes up — like I did,” said the British player Annabel Croft, who was British number one in the 1990s.
Croft, who is dating Serbian player Jelena Jankovic, played the tournament as well and was also impressed by Tsitsipas. “He is just physically imposing and it’s amazing to see how he can move around, especially on the clay,” she said. “That is another thing I find remarkable. Some of the players are not as nimble.”
Another great champion who took on the task of bringing the game to Africa was Nelson Mandela. In 1994, he helped to bring the Australian Open from Melbourne to South Africa. This would pave the way for more Indian players, who could send their own top talent. It did just that.
Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, now the number one female player in the world, was adopted as a baby by the Mandela family. Her mother is Stanislas Wawrinka’s girlfriend, a Belgian. On Tuesday, as Mauresmo watched Tsitsipas from her seat, she could not resist a warm exchange with the teenager. “He spoke to me about [Thanasi] Kokkinakis, he’s following him very closely,” she said, referring to the Australian player. “It’s very, very good, he is giving them a huge boost.”
Mauresmo was born in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe but left at the age of six to travel Europe, staying with several different families. “For me it was important to learn how to speak English and how to integrate. “In France, it’s more aggressive and I’m a pretty quiet person. I prefer French to English,” she said.
Not bad for a former tennis brat. However, Mauresmo also admitted she wasn’t very good on the court. “I was too good,” she laughed. “I wanted to be the new Chris Evert, without having to even learn the game.” That finally changed in 2001, when she reached the third round of Wimbledon.
The Brazilian Tatiana Golovin is hoping to create a similar scene for her home country. She would become the first Brazilian woman to make it into the top 10 by winning the title, despite having spent just five years as a professional. However, there was also some controversy surrounding the tournament, when player Fabiana Golovin said athletes should not play without taking anti-doping measures.
The tournament is still not mandatory for players — and is likely to stay this way for some time yet. But in the meantime, not only will they have the chance to experience their home country, they can start building the history Tsitsipas would want. “I love big events,” said the teenager. “If I’m in some big tournament like this, I like it a lot. You might say maybe for me I would prefer the matches to be close to home. But if I have to go far, it’s OK.”