He’d won over Federer on fast hard court at a major, and he’d won over Djokovic on slow hard court at a masters. Saturday brought an even thornier test for Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek had lost all seven sets he’d previously played against Rafael Nadal, five of them on hard court. The last time they played, a straight-set demolition, he reported that Nadal “just has a talent to make you play bad.”
Tsitsipas’s chances looked no better in Madrid, on clay, a surface where Nadal has maintained 90 percent win rate over his entire career, and in a tournament which Rafa has won five times. But the 20-year-old won his first-ever sets against his foe this weekend, taking their Madrid semifinal 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 and adding his name to the very short list of players who have beaten Nadal on clay since he became its king.
Nadal’s topspin has historically been the bane of every one-hander, but Tsitsipas’s backhand held up to the abuse. The Greek played remarkable defense and returned like a fiend, breaking Nadal’s serve six times in the match, which kept him competitive even as he lost his own five times.
While Nadal’s high-bouncing groundstrokes tend to take players out of their comfort zone, preventing them executing their usual game plans, Tsitsipas stuck fast to his. On tennis’s slowest surface, against its greatest passing shot artist, Tsitsipas leaned into his all-court style, getting to the net a healthy 33 times and winning 72 percent of those exchanges. More surprising still, even when he wasn’t able to speed rallies along, he held his own: Among exchanges that lasted over nine strokes, Tsitsipas won 14 to Nadal’s 15.
Tsitsipas’s victory made him the youngest player ever to collect wins over the Big Three—each time on a surface preferred by the titan—and he moved up to a career-high No. 7 ranking. The Greek went on to lose an impenetrable Novak Djokovic in the final, before, fittingly, live-streaming the whole trophy ceremony on his Instagram account. Even as he climbs up into tennis’s rarefied air, he will never veer off-brand.