MADRID — A year ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas was still a teenager and still playing in the qualifying tournaments of some of the most prestigious events on clay.
But he has come a long way in a short time, often a mark of tennis greatness. Late Saturday night with the crowd and the odds very much against him, Tsitsipas reaffirmed his rapid rise by surprising Rafael Nadal, the most successful clay-court player in history.
His 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Nadal in the semifinals of the Madrid Open earned Tsitsipas a spot in Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked player.
In the women’s final, Kiki Bertens won the biggest singles title of her career by defeating Simona Halep, 6-4, 6-4. A victory would have allowed the third-ranked Halep to return to No. 1 next week, displacing Naomi Osaka. Instead Bertens — with her improved serve, defense and variety — will reach a ranking milestone.
She will be No. 4 on Monday, the highest ranking in history for a Dutch woman. She is also the first woman to win the Madrid singles title without dropping a set.
Nadal’s upset on Saturday was certainly a reflection of his struggles in 2019. He had routinely been dominant in this phase of the season, but this year he did not reach a final in clay-court events in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.
“It was clear what I had to do tonight, and I wasn’t capable of doing it,” said Nadal, who missed volleys and groundstrokes down the stretch, reflecting his disarray.
But though Nadal, the 32-year-old Spaniard, was prepared to debate this, his latest setback also appeared to have much to do with Tsitsipas’s talent, tactics and capacity to save his boldest tennis for when he needed it most.
Down break points, Tsitsipas came up with huge serves, pushed forward or served and volleyed. Pulled wide, he ripped winners down the line. Presented with an opening, he aimed for the corners without fear.
It was all quite a shift in tone from this year’s Australian Open, where Nadal manhandled him in the semifinals, winning by 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 after twice beating him in straight sets last year.
“More courageous? Is that right? Is that a word?” asked Tsitsipas, a 20-year-old Greek, at his postmatch news conference. “Courageous. A more courageous Stefanos with more guts and mentally much tougher than I was the year before.”
Tsitsipas has undeniable court presence, with long hair, an erect bearing and a rolling walk reminiscent of the Swedish star Bjorn Borg.
He is also building quite a résumé. He will be ranked at least No. 7 in the world next week after this latest run in a Masters 1000 tournament, and he has now beaten all three of the biggest and most enduring stars in men’s tennis on some of their preferred surfaces.
Tsitsipas defeated Djokovic in the Masters 1000 in Canada last year on a hardcourt and upset his boyhood idol Roger Federer on a hardcourt in the fourth round at this year’s Australian Open. But nothing, Tsitsipas said, quite compared to beating Nadal on red clay.
You always feel like you have to play the best shot, make the best approach,” Tsitsipas said. “So players like Rafa are very difficult to face, and I would record it as my best victory and the toughest match I had up to this day.”
He will now have to recover quickly for what could be an even tougher test after finishing off Nadal shortly before midnight; the previous night he went to bed at 4 a.m. after a late-finishing doubles match.
Djokovic should be better rested. He got a walkover in his quarterfinal match with Marin Cilic and was resourceful, efficient and opportunistic in his 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) victory over Dominic Thiem, 25, in Saturday’s first semifinal.
“Coming into the match, I thought he was the favorite to win it, so that’s why it’s a great win for me,” said Djokovic, 31, who had not beaten a top-10 player on clay since defeating Thiem in Rome in May 2017.
The most powerful emotions of the day were reserved for the end, as Tsitsipas kept his cool and stuck to his aggressive game plan with a capacity crowd in the Magic Box stadium urging on Nadal.
Tsitsipas served for the match a first time at 5-2, only to be broken. But he bounced back quickly, and though Nadal saved three match points in the next game on his serve, he could not save the fourth.
Tsitsipas immediately dropped his racket to the clay and turned to face his team in the courtside player box. Nadal trotted forward and crossed to Tsitsipas’s side of the net to shake hands and then left the scene quickly.
“Being honest, my feeling is it was more about me tonight,” Nadal said. “He is young. He is improving, and he has good talent. But I don’t see myself losing that match if I play the same level that I played in Barcelona in the 2017 final or in Australia at the beginning of the season.”