Tsitsipas – Melbourne finalist who was ‘a few breaths from dying’

MELBOURNE (AFP): Stefanos Tsitsipas will become Greece’s first Grand Slam champion and a world number one if he wins the Australian Open final on Sunday — he will have his father to thank if he does.

There are not many athletes whose careers and outlooks have been forged by near-death experiences, but the 24-year-old world number four is an exception.

In 2015, while taking part in a third-tier event in Crete, a teenage Tsitsipas and a friend went swimming and almost fatally misjudged the strength of the currents.

“We couldn’t breathe, I felt awful to be inside the water and was terrified. I didn’t know how all this was going to end,” Tsitsipas once recalled.

“My father saw us from afar and he jumped in, started swimming towards us and pushed us towards the beach. I was just a few breaths away from dying.

“If we were supposed to die and lose our lives that day, we would have to do it together. My father was a hero.

“That was the day I saw life with a different perspective. I remember after that how much psychologically it changed me.”

Tsitsipas shares the same birthday as Pete Sampras — August 12 — and is studious, contemplative.

Stefanos Tsitsipas signs autographs after his victory against Russia’s Karen Khachanov

He speaks Greek, English and Russian, and has dabbled in Spanish and Chinese.

Sporting family

Sport is in his genes. Life-saving Apostolos is his coach while mother Julia Salnikova is an ex-tennis pro.

His grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was a 1956 Olympic gold medallist in football playing for the Soviet Union.

Since turning pro in 2016, Tsitsipas’s career has been on a steadily upward curve.

He was ranked 210 in the world in his first season but was inside the top 100 by the end of 2017 and as high as five in 2018, the first Greek to achieve such a status.

By the time he was 21 he had already swept wins over the sport’s three biggest beasts — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Tsitsipas was the first Greek man to win a tour title and has claimed nine in total, but a Grand Slam crown has remained elusive.

He hopes that will change when he faces Djokovic in Sunday’s Australian Open final. Victory would also make him world number one for the first time.

His only previous major final was in 2021 when he came agonisingly close to the French Open crown, racing into a two-set lead in the final over Djokovic before the Serb mounted an epic comeback to claim victory.

His biggest win to date came while he was still 21. He captured the 2019 season-ending ATP Finals title, becoming the youngest champion since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001.

‘Very smart’

Blond-haired and standing 6ft 4ins (1.93m) tall, Tsitsipas has long been touted as a possible heir to Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

He comes across as one of tennis’s more rounded players, but he can be feisty too.

He has developed an intriguing rivalry with Daniil Medvedev, another coming up fast behind the “Big Three”.

The Russian once described Tsitsipas’s game as “boring”.

Tsitsipas branded Medvedev an “(expletive) Russian” in a fiery encounter in Miami.

His Melbourne opponent Djokovic, no stranger to controversy himself, is a fan.

“He is a hard worker, dedicated, nice guy,” the Serb once said.

“He’s very smart and wise. I love the fact that he is more than just a tennis player and he’s always looking to learn from experience and to understand something new about himself.

“That’s the trait of a champion, of someone who has great potential to be number one in the world and win Slams and be a great ambassador for the sport.”