Minutes removed from making the 2019 Australian Open semifinals, Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-foot-4 and handsome as a lion, was talking about YouTube. With a microphone in his face and all the attention that comes with taking out Roger Federer two days earlier, Tsitsipas spoke his truth.
“I was watching a lot of creators, people that were creating nice content on YouTube,” the 20-year-old said, moments after becoming the youngest man to advance to a major semifinal in 12 years.
“I found this platform unique,” he added, proud fists on hips. Then, with the tennis world hanging on his every word, he offered them these seven gems: “Guys, if you haven’t subscribed, please subscribe.”
Athlete-as-brand is nothing new. But this wasn’t the typical case of a jock clumsily shoehorning his favorite mass-produced light beer into postgame remarks, trying to maximize the down-home folksiness of his image. This was all organic. Here was a rising champion, the bright path to glory laid out for all to see, asking us to join him in his true passion: posting content online.
Every day, Tsitsipas plays tennis. Every few days, he treats his sizable following to a nugget from the mind of Stefanos. Sometimes it’s a spare musing, sometimes a lavishly art-directed portrait paired with a caption. Optimism and exploration are his preferred themes. His finest posts are aphoristic, epiphanic, like if you let the paper slip inside a fortune cookie blot up some LSD. Consider some representative samples.
The shareable proverb:
The metaphysical aside:
The search for meaning:
The pithy advice:
The mystic retweet:
Aside from a Twitter account, Tsitsipas maintains a public-facing Instagram for his basic professional audience, and a semi-secret account for his headier photography under the alias “Steve the Hawk.” On his preferred medium, YouTube, he publishes meandering diaries, his own face nearly always in frame, detailing his everyday travels and mishaps. Much of the time he doesn’t spend on his day job—which he is very, very good at—is spent filming and editing these amusing, soul-baring videos. He might detail all the modes of human transportation, deadpan. He might recount a near-death incident that taught him “you cannot feel fear.” He might, as a piano pensively tinkles over footage of a small Caribbean village, very earnestly compliment the inhabitants of the island for “enjoying and living a meaningful life by finding purpose in less, and not in more.”
Both in person and on screen, Tsitsipas always looks as if he has just dried off after a brisk swim in the ocean. His cheeks come to high peaks, a rosy cloud around each. He has light eyes, dark brows, shoulder-length hair bleached nearly golden by the sun, stray scruff above his lips and along his jawline. He carries that generically lean tennis frame that seems to stock exactly as much weight as needed to hit hard and move freely, not a pound miscalibrated in either direction. He speaks in a relaxing lilt that turns a phrase like “TV signal on Stadium 1" into “tevisignal awn stadyumwan.” And over time, he has found that his physical gifts also feed into his public art.
Perhaps the wave of Please Like and Subscribe elite athletes is coming for us. For now, at least, nobody can boast higher production value than this long-haired vlogger with a taste for drone cinematography and semi-nude self-portraiture.
Is it possible to thrive at the tippy-top of pro sports while remaining this committed to Posting Online? More important, why choose to dedicate time to the latter that could otherwise be spent enjoying the fruits of the former? Recent history supplies partial answers. The reigning back-to-back NBA Finals MVP uses burner accounts to endorse himself in heated Twitter disputes. A red-pilled elite MLB pitcher is not above harassing random followers in pursuit of spirited debate. The motivating factors are not hard to suss out in these cases: one is impossibly insecure and the other is an asshole.
Nothing so dark or simple seems to have compelled Tsitsipas into the demographic of the terminally online, though. He is a kind and thoughtful young man. He lives there nonetheless, for reasons all his own.
“It’s a very satisfying feeling, to be uploading, to be creating,” Tsitsipas told me, months after asking the tennis world to smash that like button. “It’s a feeling that, basically, makes me—makes me feel alive. I feel that I’m brought to this world, to, you know, there’s a purpose in living. And I find it tough to stop it.”
By the time Tsitsipas landed in the California desert in March to play Indian Wells, perhaps the best-known tournament in the world outside the four majors, he was a known quantity. He started 2018 ranked No. 91 in the world, and steadily ascended with big wins like a win over Novak Djokovic in Toronto, but it was his run at the Australian Open that put him on permanent notice. Even after Tsitsipas was painlessly vaporized in straight sets in the semis—Rafa “just has a talent to make you play bad,” he noted in the postmortem—he kept up the momentum for a 15-5 start to the season. In the single-elimination death race of tennis, good work is rewarded with more work. Tsitsipas was playing well, and thus, taking on an obscene workload: nine matches in 11 days. In Marseille, he claimed his second career title. The very next weekend in Dubai, he fought to another final, losing a tight 6-4, 6-4 rematch as Federer claimed his 100th career crown.
All that winning flung Tsitsipas into the top 10, which comes with its own perks. First-round byes are the luxuries of the high-seeded. At Indian Wells, he didn’t have to play a singles match until Saturday. He had a doubles match on Friday, but that’s more an extracurricular jaunt than a source of stress, which is for the best, because he and first-time partner Wesley Koolhof literally collided in their first-round loss. The tournament is nestled in the Coachella Valley, near Palm Springs, an hour from Joshua Tree, and Tsitsipas had time to wander in the desert and cut a promo for his racket sponsor, making sure to gather some footage for his own directorial pursuits.
Aside from byes, fame brings bodies. Last year at this tournament, Tsitsipas could have practiced in outer-court anonymity, visited by a few wanderers and some diehards repping the Greek diaspora. But anonymity went out the door as soon as Tsitsipas barged into popular consciousness in Melbourne. Tsitsipas is the only Greek man in the top 500. He has broken into the top 10 at a strikingly young age, in an era where no man under 30 possesses a major title. This foretells major success.
At Indian Wells, I counted some 210 people who elected to watch him practice—to drill, lightly, without any points or structure—instead of watching any of the actual professional matches being played within earshot, with money and ranking points at stake. (It helped that that particular practice court, on the edge of the facility, might be one of the country’s most uncannily beautiful: cocoa powder hills, a fringe of palms, afternoon’s gold beams slanting onto the surface.)
As I waited for Tsitsipas to arrive for his first practice session of the tournament, I spotted a faintly familiar dark-haired kid near a garbage can, fiddling with some Wilson rackets, looking a little too athletic to be merely a fan. Then Stefanos showed up, and the kid walked over to greet him, and it struck me: It was his 18-year-old brother, Petros, a guest on big brother’s YouTube channel. Stefanos’s videos document his daily life, and his nuclear family appear, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, as bit parts.
The brothers walked to opposite sides of the practice court and started pinging the ball around, loose and easy but suggestive of huge power, like big cats toying with a scrap of food. Overseeing the action was Apostolos Tsitsipas, father and coach of both boys, a grey swoop of hair cresting like a wave over his heavy brow. He and his wife, Julia, were once players with ambitions; she was the highest-ranked player in the Soviet Union in her late teens. They remain the primary influences on their children’s tennis. As the brothers rallied, Apostolos delivered pointers in tumbling curlicues of Greek, which were interrupted occasionally, and hilariously, by blunt chunks of English, like “drive volley” or “down the line.” Hugging a racket by the far sideline was Patrick Mouratoglou, best known as the coach of Serena Williams, who owns the tennis academy in the French Riviera where Stefanos trains and acts as a consultant now. Fittingly enough, Mouratoglou told the Times he first came across Stefanos’s game on YouTube, and liked what he saw.
There’s a lot to be impressed by in Stefanos’s game, which, like its owner, has a clear telegenic appeal. Everyone loves a one-handed backhand. Dad, mother, brother all play with one-handed backhands, and Stefanos tells me he gave up the second hand on his at the age of eight. His inspiration at the time was Roger Federer, but also Pete Sampras, whose Greek heritage inspired him. (Between his agent, coach, consultant, and inspiration, the national pride is strong in Tsitsipas.) Along with a handful of other kids, Tsitsipas ensures that the one-hander will live onto the next generation. His is a compact, triumphant slash.
The forehand, meanwhile, startles. Tsitsipas gradually sinks his racket into the pocket, and then, as soon as the ball comes into range, rips through it in a blink, as if he had been waiting patiently for a fly to land before smacking it dead with a frying pan. The effect is jarring, which has benefits: It’s hard to read, to discern whether lightning will strike inside-out or inside-in. He holds the racket with an old-school Eastern grip that defies tour trends, as young players skew Western for the spin. Tsitsipas’s father has compared it, rather generously, to Juan Martin del Potro’s forehand, which might be the game’s single scariest weapon (when its owner is healthy enough to use it). “You don’t have to think so much how to prepare, you just swing. It’s a natural swing. When you let your arm swing naturally, it creates beautiful mechanics,” Apostolos told the tour during his son’s ascent.
So far, Tsitsipas’s signature shot might be the diving volley. He’s standing at the net. A shot hisses back outside of volley range, so he hurls himself at a horizontal, risking scrape and bruise for the off-chance of knocking one ball back over. Tsitsipas has done it on every surface, not just the forgiving clay but the unyielding stubble of hard court and the blade burn of grass. These are the luxuries of having a 20-year-old skeleton; you’re not going to see Roger risking a faceplant for anything short of a Wimbledon championship point. (And even then.) Tsitspas has filled a whole reel with a shot that some players might go a full season without attempting.
It’s mildly reckless and indisputably crowd-pleasing. I asked whether it’s his favorite shot. “Well, I don’t really like it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I do it for, uh, there is a purpose for that. I don’t want to lose a point,” he said, correcting my mistaken impression that he was seeking glory. “That’s why I’m doing it. Sometimes it’s a tense situation and it might not seem as important, but to me, has big value. So that’s why I do it. His favorite shot, he reveals, half-smiling, is the overhead smash, which is a cop-out; there’s a lot on court he relishes more than the easy gimmes. He proceeded to told me his single worst shot on court, then immediately regretted this confession, though I am happy to divulge to the highest bidder.
Where duller players might be content to bash away at the baseline, Tsitsipas ranges all over the court, rumbling towards the net, accelerating a point to its climax, proactively making shit happen instead of waiting for it to happen to him. This also motivates the comparisons to Federer.
While that comparison is a little facile, it’s not baseless, and it’s easy to identify with the underlying sentiment. Anyone with an emotional investment in tennis is prone to squint themselves blind trying to see the Roger of the future. By the time he hangs up his racket, Federer will have been its lifeblood for some two decades, and a fresh transfusion is overdue. As sources close to the tour have made clear, there is hope that people will love to watch Tsitsipas the way they loved to watch Roger.
Immediately after Tsitsipas’s upset in Australia, at the post-match press conference, a reporter brought the matter directly to Federer’s attention. She asked the GOAT whether he saw a bit of himself in the kid who beat him. Federer rubbed some sweat off his forehead—which was not, is never sweating—rubbed those fingers on his shirt, and flopped both hands in the air in low-grade exasperation. “Um. Yeah, I mean, I guess so. Yeah, I mean, he has a one-handed backhand and I used to have long hair too,” he said, as laughs spilled out from the press. “Yeah, so, maybe a little bit, sure.” He went on to explain that Stefanos uses a grip that’s not too far from his, salvaging some sense in the question so as not to be cruel, but he clearly wasn’t interested in the exercise.
Tennis players are sheltered, almost by necessity. Unlike basketball or football, where a latent talent can pick up an unfamiliar ball freshman year and still find a path to the big leagues, pro tennis players have been on the rails since childhood, their strokes grooved to perfection through a decade of toil. For most, school in any recognizable sense fades out, replaced by drilling, travel, and tournaments. Tsitsipas is no exception. But he didn’t enjoy the camaraderie of a full cohort of peers; the Greek tennis infrastructure was thin, and his rise was specifically fueled by tennis-savvy parents.
“Having passed through all of this—sorry—shit in my life kind of changed my mindset and made me mentally stronger. I appreciate it more, knowing that I had to suffer so much to get there,” he told The Telegraph about coming up without the institutional advantages of other players. “If I was part of such a big federation to provide everything for me, trips and so on, it would just be too simple. Everything is there for you, everything is cooked for you.” He’s intensely proud of having made it through the lean times.
The social consequences of that isolation can reveal themselves under extreme pressure. Tsitsipas’s intrepid Australian Open run was marred by an $18,000 fine for a rant at a linesperson that included the phrase, “Fuck your house.”
Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian, has been fined for tossing coins at a Wimbledon referee to allege bribery, and for accusing a black umpire of favoring a black opponent. He’s also an early Tsitsipas rival. They played four times in the past year, with the elder Russian winning each. Most memorable was their Miami Open meeting last March. Late in the third set, Tsitsipas took an emergency toilet break, which some players will interpret as gamesmanship; later he won a point off a ball that clipped the net and didn’t apologize for the fluke, per tour custom. “Say sorry, man,” Medvedev fumed. After locking up the victory, Medvedev came in for the handshake, only to be ignited by something Tsitsipas apparently said.
“Man, you better shut your fuck up, okay?” Medvedev said. “You go emergency toilet for five minutes during, and then you hit let and you don’t say sorry? You think you’re good, kid?” As Tsitsipas grabbed his bags and walked off the court, Medvedev accused the Greek of having called him a “bullshit Russian.” (Tsitsipas, for what it’s worth, is half-Russian.)
Hoping to get to the bottom of this, I sat down with Medvedev at Indian Wells. Despite his bile on court, in an interview context, he is as affable and engaged a tennis player as I’ve ever encountered.
“Yeah, it was a tight match, close match, I was not happy with him for a few moments. But I didn’t feel that I did something wrong, so after the match he was not happy with me, and he said something that I think was too much. So I needed to say that he’s saying too much right now,” said Medvedev. He said he and Tsitsipas never had much of a relationship, before or after, though Tsitsipas later blocked him on Instagram.
“It happens for everybody. You’re working in an office probably, you have one guy you hate—ah, probably there is one guy you don’t talk to, so yeah,” he chuckled. Medvedev noted that omnipresent cameras and easy sharing have ratcheted up the stakes of any on-court skirmish.
“I mean now the internet a lot of things has changed. Many matches you can see if somebody said something. Like Nick and Stan,” he said, smiling mischievously, alluding to an infamous 2015 incident between Nick Kyrgios and Stan Wawrinka. “Where before, nobody would remember this. And now it’s, woof—one click. All the world knows.”
Tsitsipas was tighter-lipped on the shut-your-fuck-up summit. “People make their own conclusions about certain things. But what really happened it’s only me and my opponent that knows about it,” he told me. “Misunderstanding during the match can cause such heat, let’s say.”
Heat abounds in tour life. A few weeks after our meeting, in sweltering Miami, Tsitsipas took on a fellow upstart in the third round: 19-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who also plays a crackling all-court style with a one-hander. The match was spicy, and deep in the deciding third set, a Shapovalov forehand sent Tsitsipas scrambling to the corner. All he could do was scrape at the ball, floating a harmless slice back into the middle of the court. Shapavalov walked up for the death blow. As he prepared to strike, Tsitsipas clacked his racket against the court, loudly, bizarrely, twice. There was no feasible justification beyond breaking his opponent’s concentration. The Canadian ripped a forehand winner anyway, scowled, and rattled his own racket against the court in defiance of the dirty trick. They played on; the Greek lost.
Light confrontations and spasms of poor sportsmanship are right at home on the pro tour, but Tsitsipas’s early and notable success has guaranteed that his professional missteps won’t escape anyone’s notice. His camp is very much aware that he has lost the luxury of anonymity. My sense is that the people close to him see this potential, and are eager to watch him grow into his powers—but for now, handle him like a cub. One day he might sit atop the food chain, posting with impunity, but until then he must be shielded from bad winds and bad actors.
“We do not want to do anything nude,” Tsitsipas’s agent, Nick Tzekos, said, firmly but not unkindly, during a lull in practice at Indian Wells. A photographer from the tennis magazine Racquet had proposed shooting Tzekos’s client in the style of an iconic 1971 Yves Saint-Laurent portrait, and the agent was worried that it might be misconstrued. To his credit, there’s a clear precedent here: Tsitsipas had recently posted a photo of himself from the nipples up, along with an alluring caption:
There’s a whole lot of Stefanos coursing out into the world—that’s the way he likes it—so those close to him are right to be cautious about how it all might come coursing back. When I asked Tsitsipas how he feels taking more creative risks than other tennis players, he objected to my use of the word “risks”; he doesn’t see them as risks at all.
“Well, it’s all about how you’re going to see it. How you’re going to see that preview, that photo, or how you’re going to react to it,” he said. “It’s from the angle you’re going to see the court, or, if you really understand what the real meaning behind that then, you’re probably gonna, you won’t, how can I, how can I explain that?”
Sometimes his conversation has a probing, hunt-and-peck quality. This is partially explained by the demands of on-the-fly translation into English, but it also feels like a larger project: to faithfully convey the exact feeling in his head, instead of settling for a half-baked athlete platitude. Stefanos Tsitsipas wants to be understood, both in a cosmic sense, and in this particular exchange in an administrative office in southern California. In this instance, at least, I could be of help. “I think I understand what you’re saying: If you understand the intention,” I offered.
His eyes widened. “The intention! If you understand the intention, then you’ll probably understand the real meaning,” he said, satisfied with his composition just in time to be whisked away to make it to tennis practice.
A prominent tennis journalist once expressed concern to me about how Tsitsipas might fit into his workplace: “He’s too pure for this world.” Tsitsipas does not naturally slot into the chummy, impersonal fraternity that characterizes the men’s tour. His earnestness precedes him. “Not many of the players want to be friends on the tour. That’s a problem. That’s an issue, unless you speak the same language,” he told Tennis earlier this year. “But I would love to have more friends on the tour. I’m working on it.” At the end of 2018, he shared with his Instagram followers a checklist of personal accomplishments that year. Checked: “fell in love,” “made new friends” Unchecked: “went to a party,” “been on a date,” “had a tech-free day.”
And he is a little delicate. The first time we were slated to sit down for an interview, after watching him train for two hours, I was told that the practice went “okay, not great,” so he wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind, and I wouldn’t get the best version of him, and he needed to—here the agent made a tunneling gesture—get to his physio, and get home, so wouldn’t it be better if we just do this tomorrow?
He was probably right. It had been a rough day out in the desert, windy enough to mess with ball tosses, to kick Stefanos’s hair all over his face, to send dirt streaking visibly across the afternoon light, to get his agent on the phone trying to wrangle a future practice court that would be better insulated from the elements. As I left, Tsitsipas lit into a coughing fit so operatic I was tempted to run a stopwatch, while his dad, pulling tennis balls out of a clear plastic sack, beseeched him to focus, please, for three minutes, and hit some backhands.
The next time I saw Tsitsipas, he was looking hale and happy again, perhaps because we were doing the thing he most wants to be doing: admiring sophisticated video equipment. The tour’s media director figured it would be fun to bring Tsitsipas into the lab so he could see all the tech and talent behind the tournament’s glossy broadcasts. We escaped the tennis garden, if barely, wandering out into the parking lot to discover several long trailers, blindingly white on the asphalt. Each one served a different function, and was filled by a platoon of video producers. Tsitsipas and the producers were mutually starstruck, each appreciative of the others virtuosic technique. One video editor eagerly cued up some “sexy shots” of a sun-soaked Tsitsipas on court. His subject gazed at himself on the screen, and said, “Good shots. You should be proud.”
Tsitsipas is a gearhead, prone to shoutout his MAVIC-2 Zoom Drone and share images of his full setups in vlogs and examine the microphones in a post-match interview. He bombarded the producers with weedy questions, easily holding his own in the ensuing analyses. When it comes to frame rate, he acknowledged, “25 is better for broadcasting.” As for resolution, they lamented the infeasibility of broadcasting in 4k. They debated the relative merits of Final Cut and Premiere Pro editing software. “I wanna be a Premiere guy, not a Final Cut,” he groaned. (Later I was scandalized to discover that he proclaimed in January, “Final Cut Pro is the best thing that has ever happened to humanity.”) He asked about color balance, about after-effects, about compression, about rights-free music. He soaked up as much as possible in the limited time available to him; after all, he had a loaded docket that day, including some tennis.
He even learned the controls and was allowed to produce an actual replay on the broadcast. “Are you nervous?” one producer asked him. “A little bit, yeah,” he conceded. “I have a job to do.” He did it well, emitted a refreshingly uncool “Yeah!” and went on his way, gathering pro tips, letting loose laughs in a high clatter.
As we left that trailer, one producer joked that Tsitsipas had a “second career lined up already.” The tennis player smiled and took a moment to digest the comment. “Not sure about that but ... more, ah ...” he trailed off.
“You’re a filmmaker,” offered the producer, filling the blank.
Tsitsipas had in fact been fumbling for a delicate way to say he’s an auteur, not a technician. “Yeah, I can take my time, you know?”
“You get to work on more the creative aspect,” suggested the producer.
“Exactly, I can be as slow as I want.”
Flanked by five monitors, with a hot 18-inch halo-like lighting fixture looming in front of his face, and a camera trained on him as he answered questions about his trailer visit, Tsitsipas was in the zone. So much so that he didn’t miss a beat when the lighting fixture crashed to the ground, nearly smashing what is by now an extremely valuable right foot. “Do you have warranty?” he quipped.
I noted that he was in his element. “It’s true! When I see all this stuff I feel comfortable,” he said, looking rejuvenated. “Having creative people like this next to me, and people that can really inspire me and give me a different understanding of what I really like is important to me. I don’t just learn about filmmaking and videography and cinematography, I learn about myself.”
On the way out of the final trailer, he joked—or didn’t joke—about how he’d prefer to be spending his downtime between matches. “Instead of hanging out in the players’ lounge, I can just come here.”
The camera and the racket both clamor for Stefanos’s attention. When I asked meat-and-potatoes tennis questions, he toyed with the lanyard around his neck, lightly glazed; when our conversation flipped from vocation to avocation, an irrepressible smile spread. But he had his priorities crisp in his mind. He told me in no uncertain terms that tennis is his job, and he takes his job seriously. The results support that. No human stumbles into tennis’s top 10 and a major semifinal by accident.
That doesn’t mean his two worlds are perfectly sealed off from one another. When asked whether his mind has ever drifted off to vlogging in the middle of a match, he said it had. This itself is a mark of candor; most top players don’t like to admit their focus is anything but monk serenity, their mind a laser beam honed on the next ball. (Well, Naomi Osaka did admit to thinking about mesothelioma ads during practice, but she’s closer to Tsitsipas on this axis than anyone else.)
But Tsitsipas said he had no problem restoring his sense of scale. “I mean, I said to myself, your occupation, your job is much more important than your hobbies. Prioritize your tennis first, and then you won’t make a career from vlogging. You’re already a successful tennis player and keep doing what you’re doing, you know,” he said. “I mean, I don’t like to take my vlogging too seriously because I don’t do it for a living.”
They’re not in direct competition, and the relationship may even be symbiotic, in ways both obvious—tennis fuels the travel that fuels the vlogs—and not. He was convinced that the filmmaker’s perspective has helped him succeed on the court, even if the exact mechanism eludes him. “I feel it also has helped me with my career in a way which I cannot really describe and explain 100 percent. So. I see the court well,” he said, trailing off, again hunting for the precise words to map out the sentiment in his head. “I see the court well,” he repeated. Maybe one day the player-director link will be clearer to him, the subject of a future vlog.
When asked whether he views himself as an artist, Tsitsipas said, “I see myself as an artist on and off the court.” Pressed to think about the values that his two chosen art forms—pro tennis and longform vlogging—have in common, he immediately said, “Freedom.” Then, after a few seconds of quiet, he added, “Discipline.”
It is not difficult to find a testament to Tsitsipas’s artistry on the court. Bystanders are easily taken in by the way he moves.
I sat courtside for his third practice at Indian Wells. Turnout indicated that he enjoys vibrant support within the white, doubles-playing mother demographic. “Hey handsome,” called out one, as he walked onto the practice court. “His hair,” cooed another. Perhaps his biggest fan sat in sunglasses and a black dress, peppering the player with praise throughout the session. “He’s so fit,” she observed. “He’s a stud.” And he’s going to grow another inch-and-a-half, she promised, “based on my boys.” One of those boys had become Instagram-famous, and was already making a ton off product placement. After that brief detour she was back to admiring the boy on the court. “He’s adorable.” She raved about his kick serve. “He’s very appealing.” Then, 52 minutes into the practice, she added, “What’s this guy’s name?”
In search of a slightly more informed but similarly rich opinion on Stefanos Tsitsipas, I sought out the man who had already played him twice this season, his kid idol: Roger Federer.
The minutes of Roger’s day are like strings of saffron: procured with much labor, heavily in demand, feel like a wild luxury, lend a fantastic fragrance. He floated into the interview room with that year-round base burn of those who labor lucratively in the sun, the rough color of an apricot. Courtesy of the brand that signed him to a rumored $300 million contract, he wore a sailor-striped t-shirt, some dark slim jeans and low-top sneakers, looking more like the youths he whoops on a regular basis than a father of four who’ll turn 38 before this year’s U.S. Open.
I watched as the 20-time major champion was whisked into a video room by producers eager to harvest some gifs and memes; he mimed playing with a tennis ball, tossing it up for a serve, challenging a call. It’s the sort of exercise Tsitsipas relishes; old heads merely tolerate these impositions. (“I am not that young, so I don’t see social networks every day,” said a 32-year-old Rafa a few hours earlier, befuddled by queries about an Instagram beef.) The handlers seemed on edge; Roger seemed a little exasperated. By the time he emerged for our chat he had of course reset to a state of luxe calm.
For our one-on-one, I was granted the length of a hallway, plus one right turn, plus the additional time it took to carefully step over a raised door frame. With time so scarce, the questions had to be surgical. Mine weren’t. First he corrected my error—he and Tsitsipas have actually played three times this year, I’d forgotten their exhibition in Australia, a two-tiebreak barnburner—as gracefully as if he were picking up a half-volley on the move.
Then he segued into a trademark Roger Federer interview technique. He’ll start out broadly complimenting a young player, their work ethic, their abilities, and, without warning, reel off the top of his head an eerily rigorous timeline of their career. His Tsitsipas recall did not disappoint: “I think he started the season last year ranked around 90. So here we are, 13 months, 14 months later, and he’s in the top 10, first Greek to ever do it, I mean, it’s an amazing accomplishment.” I was half-waiting for him to rattle off the score lines of my tougher high school doubles matches.
Instead the internal search engine flickered off and he eased back into warm bromides. “His parents have done a lot of things right. I think they should be very proud of him,” he said. I brought up a comment he made fresh off his 2017 Wimbledon victory, urging young players to come to the net more. Did he see some of that in the young Greek? Federer did, and glowed.
“I like how he comes to the net with a purpose. I think that sometimes—not everybody has, you know? It’s not ingrained in our DNA anymore nowadays so much, because everything is so baseline,” he said, referring to player’s reluctance to leave the comfort zone at the back of the court. “But when he comes to the net, I really feel like he believes he can and will win the point. More often than not. And I think that mindset is a very important one moving forward.” He said he admires how Tsitsipas takes the ball early and can “win points in different ways,” both hallmarks of Federer’s own game.
Stepping over the door frame, the last grains of sand slipping through the hourglass, I asked if the younger players, mired in the internet and social media, face a new set of challenges than he did when he was 20. “Absolutely. I’m happy I’m not from this generation. Let’s put it that way,” he laughed, before stepping in front of a camera and melting into another perfectly charming TV appearance.
That’s not necessarily how Tsitsipas looks at things. We caught up again in the players lounge, an airy office that players flit in and out of with their full retinues. Sitting at a high table with a little potted bromeliad, he began to frame social media as a motivation for his tennis in two surprising ways.
“He started his career without all this. And I’m pretty sure he still remembers how was it without, how it was without all of the social media platforms and more of the real life,” he said, of Federer’s experience. “I think it also allows me to kind of concentrate more on my tennis because I know that if I won’t be on social media, I’ll probably get maybe an extra practice instead of that.”
Tennis becomes a physical release from the digital fray, a reconnection with his first love. “Just a reminder of why I really love tennis, just go outside and play, you know? Hit balls and play, play more tennis in that playground that I’m playing.”
Tsitsipas also believes that the connections he has made through social media provide extra emotional fuel when he competes on the court. “It has been a motivation and it still is a small percent of my motivation to do well. You create, you create your brand and your image with social media.”
His iconic moment, to me, will be asking a captive stadium full of adoring fans to “please subscribe.” I asked if he felt that this was a new moment for tennis.
“Well that was, uh, that was definitely a good moment for my channel,” he laughed, remembering his skyrocketing subscriber base. “It was kind of a new thing to tennis. Nobody did it before, and I feel proud I kind of renewed that.”
I was curious if social media use was a palliative for the loneliness of life on tour. This sport is now far too rigorous for off-duty carousing. Austerity is the prevailing mood. Singles players compete alone; every colleague is also the competition. Seasons run year-round, and events are scattered all over the world, often requiring them to travel thousands of miles in consecutive weekends. There’s not much time to mentally reset, physically recover, tactically tinker with new ideas. Whatever improvements you can make are made on the clock. Friends, too, must be made on the clock. Is this Gen Z’s coping mechanism of choice?
“No, I mean I have friends from the ATP, and also from the WTA, from both tours. And yeah, we do have chats from time to time together when we’re playing the same tournaments. Um, I do have a few friends. It’s not that lonely. I mean, it’s all right.”
Admittedly, I’d proposed an absurd exercise, which amounted to, “List for me your friends.” I clarified that I just meant to call attention to the general solitude of life on tour.
“I know, I know it can be lonely but ... that’s why you also have social media.”
He has had his challenges there, too. In February he shared a series of screenshots from a direct message exchange, led with the caption, “I’ve never laughed so much from someone texting me! This has to be shared. It’s worth it.” Context clues suggest his conversation partner was fellow player Naomi Osaka: a reference to a Japanese friend, American slang like “low-key,” mutual discussion of life on tour. They talk freely about difficulty making friends with their peers. It reads as a private, vulnerable exchange between two pros—until, of course, it was made public.
Not long after blasting the screenshots to his followers, Tsitsipas deleted them, and claimed he was hacked. There is a rich history of athletes being “hacked” by people with mystifying taste in revelations. “I don’t know. I have no idea. I got hacked,” he said, when asked why someone would pry into his life only to unearth this innocuous exchange.
“And then someone sent me a message telling me all of that. Yeah. And then I had to shut off my, like, deactivate my—not deactivate, sorry—had to recover my account from my email again, via Instagram by official password. To reset the password, but I really have no idea how they found, how they found my password.”
“I was actually pretty lucky that they didn’t do some other shit, you know, with my account,” he said, laughing. When asked who he had been talking to, he described the exchange as “a funny conversation with a fan that I had.”
Later, as we surveyed some of the lighter topics in life, Tsitsipas told me that, after wrapping up autobiographies of Elon Musk and Jackie Chan, he’d been enjoying a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck. “When I read that book I was like, wow, this is like so much what I feel on the court. And like, the mentality that has to be while you’re competing,” he said. “Really, really like this book despite its title.”
For all the goofiness of Tsitsipas the poster, Tsitsipas the player is no-nonsense, devoid of tic or ritual, rarely revealing an extreme version of any emotion, positive or negative. Those feelings are papered over by his Game Face: chin held high enough to catch imaginary rain drops, hair swept back and secured beneath a headband, expression serene and stony, a bust from antiquity crossed with an Abercrombie catalog. His only lapses come after an error, when he puts his hands on his hips and stares out into the middle distance, shaking his head: Stefanos can’t fathom that Stefanos would do what Stefanos just did. (He struck the same pose, aptly, after beating Roger Federer.) But in general, every match is pure poise and spectacle.
It was this player that I expected to see in Tsitsipas’s first singles match at Indian Wells. His opponent was Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 18-year-old out of Canada, a lank prodigy clambering up the pro ranks. Tsitsipas had never beaten Auger-Aliassime at the junior level. Lots of time has passed though, and in the interim their relative statue had shifted. Tsitsipas is the No. 9 seed. The teen is still on his way up, at No. 58 in the world. He has yet to face the historic greats that Tsitsipas has already defeated, and despite some recent success on clay, he wouldn’t have qualified for this event had he not been awarded a wild card.
So Tsitsipas was the favorite in this match, played on a lucid Saturday afternoon, billed as a sneak preview of the next decade at the top of the sport. That blockbuster promise fizzled. Auger-Aliassime imposed his plans on each rally, solving the Greek’s huge serve with flair. He broke serve early in the match, and soon after, Tsitsipas vented heat by walloping a dead ball some 100 mph at the far side of the court, only for Felix to block it with the instep of his foot in a deflating feat of casual athleticism. Auger-Aliassime took that set 6-4. Tsitsipas fiddled with his tactics, shifting his return position back, with little to show for it. The second set was a 6-2 rout. On the final point, Tsitsipas borked a return, instantly slipped off his headband, and beelined for the handshake.
By the standards of this season it was a disappointment, but in his post-match presser, Tsitsipas appeared to be at peace. He sounded hungrier to restore internal balance than to talk fine-grained strategy.
“I mean, my mind at the moment is not very fresh. I feel like I had enough of tennis already,” he said, when a reporter asked about his busy schedule as of late. He said he was happy to have a break before his next event. I asked how he planned to regain that freshness in his mind.
“Maybe disconnect a bit from the sport and do something else, not even watch it at all. Like, don’t watch tennis at all. In our level of game, sometimes—I mean, in other jobs as well, when you do something, you know, with a lot of intensity and a lot of focus and a lot of will, sometimes your mind cannot keep up and you get tired. You cannot do the same thing over and over again. And that’s why I admire the players like Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. They seem to be so consistent in all they’re doing.”
This was the second time that week I’d heard Tsitispas discuss the need to disconnect. A day before his match, he’d told me that he’d recently embarked on a week-long, scorched-earth social media fast. “It felt through social media everything was happening faster, and I was in a rush and then I was stressed, and then I had anxiety. And it didn’t feel right. So that’s why I disconnected,” he told me. “All I wanted was to know nothing, and be nothing.”
Tsitsipas arrived at Indian Wells talking about the benefits of unplugging from social media, and left it talking about his need to unplug from tennis. What was left, then, to plug into?
Here was a 20-year-old pondering that question in public, while also trying to find and hone the inhuman focus that produces, say, 15 to 20 major titles. Nobody in the room had the answers; we were a pack of vultures, circling the freshly defeated for a meaty quote or two, and we weren’t going to interrupt. So he kept thinking out loud about how he might freshen his mind.
“I don’t know. Probably mix it up. That’s the only solution, to be consistent. I don’t know. Don’t do the same thing. Just maybe serve and volley one day, the other one you can just stay back. It’s all of this variety in your game can probably help you be more fresh. I don’t know. I don’t know myself to be honest.”
Tsitsipas left that interview room without the answers. He would leave California soon afterward; so would I. But, perhaps for the first time with any elite tennis talent, there will always a way to keep up with his journey of self-discovery, in real time: just consider the posts.