As young Stefanos Tsitsipas whipped away the headphones that connected him to his father and coach in the stands during a break in his tough match against Jaume Munar in Milan this week, it was tempting to picture the young Greek’s career following a familiar path of entitlement and misunderstanding.
Could he be the new Nick Kyrgios – or Bernard Tomic? All the ingredients were there: outrageous talent, impetuosity, single-mindedness, the brooding impatience of the favoured son.
As we thought he might, Tsitsipas returned to the court and went on to win his first match of the Next Gen ATP Finals 4-3 (5), 4-3 (3), 3-4 (4), 4-2. “It was very stressful,” he said. It is meant to be, an older player might have whispered to him. Nevertheless, he found a way.
Whether he continues to do so when he resumes business on the ATP Tour next year we will discover after the game’s winter hiatus.
His explanation after his first win in Milan leavened fears he was another superbrat – even though he complained about having to fetch his own towel, rather than have it carried to him between points. Nor did he much like having to take part in the ATP’s experiment of talking to his coach/father while playing.
Listening closer to his explanation it seemed he was guilty of little more than being young. He is the top seed in the tournament and much is expected – especially by himself. That is what separates champions from the herd. They love winning as much as they hate losing and anything that gets in the way of their progress is an irritant. Tsitsipas was an alternate a year ago and now was favourite to win it. That said, at 20, the world No 15 has a little way to go and there is no guarantee he will make it.
The game is in a state of flux. As the creaking giants of the greatest era gather in London at the weekend for the ATP World Tour Finals – with Rafael Nadal choosing ankle surgery over a ill-advised trip to Saudi Arabia next month and a slew of other leading contenders sidelined or exhausted – the openings for young players are widening by the month. Even the restored world No 1 Novak Djokovic looks frazzled. Roger Federer, too, is beginning to look his age. Who would have thought that?
Meanwhile in Milan the tournament is brimming with skinny, growing hopefuls looking to build on their early deeds on the main circuit: Alex de Minaur, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe.
It would be a shame if Tsitsipas let hubris drown his potential. What he needs is some slack before he is led into the stocks after a couple of youthful misdemeanours. But his father needs to have a word, perhaps away from the TV microphone.
It is 16 years since another outrageous talent, Todd Reid, won Junior Wimbledon, and just over two weeks since he died. He was 34, and much loved.
Reid was the sort of Australian athlete who did it his way, every time. There are echoes of his tennis in Kyrgios and Tomic, with significant differences. Reid played with unshakeable self-belief and no complaints if he lost. There was, according to his many friends – his doubles partner Ryan Henry and the Australian journalist Darren Walton among them – a sense of joy in his tennis. He was unconventional in the best way, once serving underarm right to the final of a junior tournament because he was carrying an injury.
As Henry recalled this week on the excellent Players Voice website, “On one of the first occasions I played him, I was in the lead and on the change of ends [and] he started talking to me about ants and how the male dies after mating the queen ant. My mind quickly turned away from focusing on the match and he ran away with the win once again.
“He had an incredible ability to flick on a switch and just decide to play well, in the events that mattered to him. When he won junior Wimbledon in 2002 it was almost like he wanted to prove to himself he could win a junior slam but the lower-tier ITF junior events never seemed to be a priority. I remember at the 2003 Australian Open when he played one of his biggest career matches against Sargis Sargsian, he was throwing up on the court and still managed to win. He just put absolutely everything on the line and was one of the world’s best competitors when he was on.
“Todd was easily in the top five juniors and got to world No 4. Janko Tipsarevic was the No 1, we had Robin Söderling, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marcos Baghdatis – there were five or six players who reached the ATP top 10 within the next few years.”
But not Reid. His name flickered across the tennis firmament too briefly. He was pretty much finished after two years on the Tour. Injury and glandular fever struck early, then disillusion and a struggle through serial comebacks. In recent years, he tried his hand once or twice in local tournaments but it was hardly the same.
As Reid told Walton in a final interview last month, “I never got over what happened to me when I was 19. I was on a nice trajectory then. If I hadn’t got sick, I think I could have started pushing towards the second week at the slams and then who knows.”
Henry also quit early through injury but turned to coaching. As he noted: “I would say almost all of us found the adjustment really hard when we stopped playing. I think the hardest time I had was the year after I retired, at 19.
“There isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between doing well in juniors and then going into the pros, so you never really know. But, when Todd started beating some of the top players on the ATP Tour at age 18, it became pretty real that he had the potential to be a very solid top 20 player.”
It’s never as easy as it seems in the bloom of youth, though. Tsitsipas and all the others probably know that already.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.