06:35 PM GMT November 17, 2019
Stefanos Tsitsipas captured the biggest title of his career on Sunday, making the successful transition from 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals champion to the Nitto ATP Finals crown, 12 months on.
The sixth-seeded Greek defeated fifth seed Dominic Thiem of Austria 6-7(6), 6-2, 7-6(4) over two hours and 35 minutes in the championship match at The O2 in London. At 21 years and three months, Tsitsipas is the youngest Nitto ATP Finals champion since former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt (20) in 2001 in Sydney.
“I have no clue how I played so well in the second set," said Tsitsipas. "I have no idea. I think my mind was at ease and I wasn’t really thinking of much, which led to such a great performance in the second set, breaking him twice,” said Tsitsipas. “I didn’t give him much options to play with in the second set. It was pretty much an excellent set for me.
“It was pretty frustrating for me to be playing with such nerves for the first time in such a big event. I was a break up, I couldn’t manage to hold it. Things were decided in the tie-break and I am so relieved by this outstanding performance and fight that I gave out on the court.
“[The crowd support] is just phenomenal, having such an army behind me while I am on the court. They give me so much energy. They give me belief that I can achieve the things I want to achieve on the court. They motivate me. They just give me so much energy in general and I just love that. I would like to thank every single one [of the fans] who came here to support me today with the Greek flags. They made it feel like home.”
This is the fourth straight year that a first-time season finale titlist has been crowned, following in the footsteps of Andy Murray (2016), Grigor Dimitrov (2017) and Alexander Zverev (2018). The last time this happened in the tournament’s history was from 1988-1991 with Boris Becker (1988), Stefan Edberg (1989), Andre Agassi (1990) and Pete Sampras (1991) winning the title.
Tsitsipas, who earned $2,656,000 in prize money and 1,300 ATP Rankings points in five matches this week, is also the first player since David Nalbandian in 2005 to recover from losing the opening set and claim the title. Fourteen years ago, Nalbandian recovered from two sets down against Roger Federer to win the five-set 2005 final in Shanghai.
“It’s been a rollercoaster," said Tsitsipas. "Holding this trophy right now feels amazing… This tournament has been unbelievable guys, you made it so, so emotional. I have never received so much support in a stage like that, ever. Honestly, I owe it all to you, most of it to you. Overall, the atmosphere this week was unbelievable.”
The 21-year-old Tsitsipas adds the Nitto ATP Finals crown to titles at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille (d. Kukushkin) in February and also at the Millennium Estoril Open (d. Cuevas) in May. He was also runner-up at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships (l. to Federer) in February, the Mutua Madrid Open (l. to Djokovic) and in Beijing. He ends the season with a 54-25 record, having gone 4-1 during the week at The O2 in London.
Tsitsipas first came to the Nitto ATP Finals in November 2016 as a hitting partner for the leading professionals, including Thiem.
When asked in his post-final press conference, Tsitsipas recalled, “That is unbelievable. I just remembered. First time I met Dominic was I came here as a sparring partner, was No. 1 ranked in the juniors rankings. I got invited by the ITF to come and be a sparring partner here in the Finals.
“I think my first hit was with Dominic. It's unbelievable, isn't it? We are now facing each other in the final. It's great. It's fantastic. [He has] a tremendous amount of respect from me for what he's been achieving all those years.”
In the opening exchanges, both players engaged in long rallies, but showed willingness to attack the net on the fast indoor court. Tsitsipas came close to the first breakthrough, but Thiem struck a powerful backhand at 1-2, 30/40.
As rallies began to get drawn out, Thiem began to make inroads, but Tsitsipas – who saved 11 of 12 break points in his semi-final win over Roger Federer on Saturday – held firm in the seventh game, saving two break points with gutsy net play for a 4-3 advantage. Thiem then recovered from 15/40, with an ace and a forehand volley winner on the stretch to level the scoreline.
In an inevitable tie-break, Thiem stepped up, ripping through his forehands and attacking the net to keep Tsitsipas behind the baseline. Soon, the Austrian had a 3/0 lead, but Tsitsipas’ serve held up and he recovered to 5/5. Tsitsipas saved a set point at 5/6 by approaching the net for a volley and smash winner, but Thiem clinched his second set point with a powerful serve that Tsitsipas returned into the net.
Tsitsipas was undeterred. The youngest finalist since Juan Martin del Potro (21) in 2009 (l. to Davydenko), regrouped and was handed the first game of the second set by Thiem, who mis-hit a forehand, and later moved to a double-break advantage after hitting volley and forehand winners. Clean ball striking — 10 winners to one unforced errors — from Tsitsipas meant that their seventh FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting was decided by a third set. Last month, Thiem beat Tsitsipas 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the China Open final in Beijing.
Having saved two break points in the first game of the decider, Thiem came under pressure once again at 1-1, but as the Austrian’s backhand faltered, Tsitsipas carried the momentum to a 3-1 advantage. Thiem immediately bounced back to win three straight games, but in the deciding set tie-break — the first since 2005 — Tsitsipas surged to a 4/0 lead. While Thiem recovered to 4/4, he later hit a forehand into the net at 5/6. Tsitsipas didn’t need a second invitation to close out the biggest victory of his career. The Greek hit nine aces and won 50 of 60 first-service points.
It was the fourth time in 50 editions of the Nitto ATP Finals that a title match was decided on a final-set tie-break (also 1988, 1995 and 2005).
During the trophy presentation ceremony, Tsitsipas praised Thiem, saying: “[Dominic], you have been an inspiration. Not just for me, but for many other players around the world I am sure and for the people that come to watch,. It is truly magnificent, this fight we put out today on this court. I think it makes our sport great. Tennis is all about this.”
The 26-year-old Thiem, who’d been aiming to capture an ATP Tour-best sixth trophy of 2019, will finish at a year-end No. 4 in the ATP Rankings and with a 49-19 match record. He went 3-2 this week at The O2 in London and earn $1,302,000 in prize money and 800 ATP Rankings points.