A sun-kissed and admittedly-exhausted Stefanos Tsitsipas is sat on the terrace of a sports café overlooking a small marina of boats at JA The Resort in Jebel Ali.
The 20-year-old is in Dubai completing the final stretch of his preseason training before he flies to Perth next week to represent Greece alongside Maria Sakkari in the Hopman Cup.
He’s been working six-day weeks, putting in four sessions a day (two on the tennis court and two in the gym) to get ready for the fast-approaching new season. It’s his day off and he has a couple of media commitments before he hits the squash courts at the resort for a fun duel with his fitness trainer Frederic Lefebvre, who formerly worked with Serena Williams and Jeremy Chardy among others.
Voted the ATP’s Most Improved Player of 2018, Tsitsipas would be forgiven if he is still taking stock of what he managed to achieve over the past 12 months. He rocketed from 91 in the rankings last January to his current position of No. 15, claiming his first career title in Stockholm in the process, finishing runner-up in Barcelona and the Masters 1000 event in Canada, and reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon.
In Canada, he became the youngest player to defeat four top-10 players in a row at a single tournament. He turned 20 the day of his final defeat there to Rafael Nadal, wrapping up a statement week that solidified his position as one of the most dangerous young guns on tour. He concluded 2018 by going undefeated at the Next Gen Finals in Milan, clinching the title along with a $407,000 cheque.
Just 18 months ago, Tsitsipas was ranked outside the top-200. Now he is the youngest player in the top-20. The speed of his rise is not lost on him but he sounds confident when he discusses it.
“I was aware of what was going on, but to be honest with you, I don’t know, I wouldn’t have imagined such a good season like this year. I played incredible tennis, I played tennis out of my comfort zone, I did things even myself I was actually surprised with. But it’s all because of the hard work I’ve been doing,” Tsitsipas told Sport360.
Asked to elaborate on what exactly constitutes playing out of his comfort zone, he added: “Playing big points in tense situations, playing under pressure, playing your best tennis under pressure, saving break points, saving match points, all of this stuff is playing out of your comfort zone.”
That match toughness was on full display at several moments throughout the year and Lefebvre considers it one of Tsitsipas’ greatest assets.
“His best quality is that he is a warrior on the court. He is pretty natural. At 17, 18 he understood what he had to do and he took it seriously,” said the Frenchman.
Tsitsipas agrees with his physical trainer and feels the biggest progress he made in 2018 was in the mental department.
“Psychologically and mentally I would say. I’ve become tough, I’ve become durable. I think I’m not breaking that easy in tough situations, I’m able to keep my attitude right most of the time. I’m actually aggressive, I never become passive or defensive when the match gets tense. I always keep my foot on the gas pedal and not back down,” Tsitsipas explains.
Alongside Lefebvre in Dubai, Tsitsipas is also joined by his father and coach, Apostolos, and his younger brother Petros, who occasionally acts as his hitting partner, and at 18, has just started playing Futures events on the professional circuit.
Of the many ATP players currently in the emirate preparing for 2019, Tsitsipas has been practicing with Frenchman Lucas Pouille the most, but he also has a planned session with Roger Federer early next week.
Tsitsipas grew up idolising Federer and is thrilled to get the opportunity to practice with the 20-time Grand Slam champion.
He’s not fazed by the occasion though.
“It’s all part of my progression. I deserve to be here, there was a lot of hard work to get here and now I guess it’s my turn to shine,” he simply states.
For many players on tour, tennis is a family affair, and Tsitsipas is no different. Both his parents played tennis, and it’s actually his mother, Julia Apostoli-Salnikova, who has more experience on the professional tour, where she was ranked in the top-200 in the early ‘90s.
Having a father as your coach can often come with its own set of complications but Tsitsipas doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s not complicated, it’s much simpler than it looks like. But having him as a coach was the best thing that ever happened to my career,” he says of Apostolos, his father.
There is so much to discover in Dubai. pic.twitter.com/A78ewIWxoM— Stefanos Tsitsipas (@StefTsitsipas) December 20, 2018
Of the younger crew climbing up the tennis ranks at the moment, Tsitsipas often stands out. While others sit at their hotel rooms playing video games to blow off steam, Tsitsipas spends his time taking photographs on the streets of the many cities he visits throughout the year – he has an alternative Instagram account with the handle ‘stevethehawk’ to showcase his amateur photography – and films and edits travel vlogs for his Youtube channel.
He laments the fact that he has limited time to pursue his other interests but is happy to spend 30 hours editing one vlog, spread out over several days due to his packed schedule.
“But I understand that tennis is my priority at the moment, it’s my job, it’s what I’m getting paid to do and I’m grateful. I love tennis, I love hitting a fuzzy yellow ball every day of my life. It’s what I decided that I want to do in my life and I never regret the decision that I took,” he assures.
Tsitsipas uses his other interests as an outlet, and while he seems sociable, he also values his alone time and credits a solo trip he took to the Caribbean earlier this year for his improved results from the Spring onwards.
“I didn’t start the year very well, I started so and so. I wasn’t doing that well from January until March I think. And then I had a great run in Barcelona, which also gave me confidence in believing in myself a little bit more. Things seemed to kind of change after that. I found my rhythm, I found my confidence on the court, I knew who I actually was. I think the vacation I took going alone, by myself to the British Virgin Islands, helped me to reboot a little bit, get to understand myself a little bit better. I think it was a good thing that I did from myself,” says Tsitsipas.
The tennis calendar has been a hot topic of conversation for many years with players complaining about the length of the season, the high number of mandatory tournaments they have to play. Tsitsipas contested a whopping number of 32 events in 2018 (including Challengers and the Next Gen Finals) and is likely to start his 2019 season by playing nearly eight weeks in a row. He admits that the one thing he would change about tennis would be the calendar.
“The tour is great. I like competing but sometimes it feels like there is a lot of stress and all that stress, week by week, it’s really tough to handle sometimes,” he confessed.
“I wish there was maybe smarter scheduling, that would be – I’m sure if I go higher in the future with my ranking and everything, I think the schedule will be much more different than it is right now so I won’t have to worry about that. Scheduling sometimes is too much.
“I think I played the most tournaments of all the other players this year but still it was a lot of traveling this year.
“The rules – I actually enjoyed the Next Gen Finals, I was the winner, but still I enjoyed it although it was very stressful in the beginning to deal with it, I found it very stressful with the rules and everything. But I don’t know it felt more exciting to be out on the court during the Next Gen Finals week than any other week that I played because there was so much adrenaline in every match that I played. I never felt so much energy and so much excitement on the tennis court ever before, I guess it was because of the people who were there cheering for me, or the stadium, but it was great atmosphere overall.”
Another thing he wishes was a bit different on the circuit is the interaction between the players. Having spent his first full year on tour in 2018, I ask him whether he’s made any new friends in the locker room or whether it’s difficult befriending your rivals.
“I don’t think it’s difficult. I just think that everybody is on their phones nowadays so it’s tough to make friends like this,” he says with a smile.
“I wish people were a bit more social on the tour, not many people prefer to be that social and have friends but I do understand that. But I do have some friends, I’m very close with Marcos Baghdatis, some doubles players, people who speak the same language. Denis Istomin is also a very good friend.”
Looking ahead to next year, Tsitsipas has set himself some high targets and isn’t shying away from sharing them.
“My goals for next year is to play semis in a Grand Slam, win a Masters 1000 tournament, break into the top-10 and be in the ATP Finals,” he declares. “Those are four of the goals I’ve set for next season. I think they’re achievable. I’ve shown some good tennis this year. I think my level is not far from winning a Masters 1000, being among the top-five or six of the ATP rankings, in the Grand Slams playing semis or quarter-finals, or maybe even doing much better than that.
“For sure I feel like I have the level. It’s all about time, all about patience and waiting for your turn.”
He also points out the areas of his game he hopes to develop the most.
“I would say to be more aggressive on the court. To play a more aggressive game style than I’m playing at the moment. I do play aggressive but I believe with my height, with my power, with my abilities I can be even more aggressive, I can take the ball earlier, approach the net, feel a bit more comfortable with my volleys and coming in front. And to be a bit more consistent with my serve,” he says.
VOLLEYS WITH STEFANOS
Karen Khachanov finished the year by beating four top-10 players en route to the Paris Masters final. Alexander Zverev won the ATP Finals. Do the achievements of other young players on tour push you to do better?
I think there is motivation. Everybody wants to do their best, everybody wants to surpass the other one, I think it’s normal, it’s competition, it’s what we’re meant to do, it’s our sport, it’s our natural approach to things. We’re competitive most of us, and I’m competitive myself. I think having the young generation of players behind me or even in front of me kind of pushes me a little bit more.
Were you surprised that Zverev won in London?
Not really. He’s a great player, I was not surprised that he won the Nitto Finals. I think he deserved it, he showed a great year, 2018 was a really good year for him. He has beaten those players before so that’s why I wasn’t surprised.
Which moments this year do you feel made the biggest difference for you?
I had many moments. One moment that stood out was the round of 16 at Wimbledon, which gave me a bit of confidence I can say. Also playing semis in Washington because that tournament I felt like I played well but I didn’t really play my best tennis yet. But I was surprised that I did semis in a 500 event not playing my best tennis. And then I managed to pull out my best game the next week in Toronto which I was very happy with because it was a very important tournament, many points there, and I was very proud of myself to be the first [youngest] male player to beat four top-10 players in single tournament, that was stunning.
If you had to pick, which Grand Slam do you think would be your best shot at your first major title?
I would say Wimbledon and Australian Open, let’s not forget the Greek fans.
As a Greek, were you inspired by Cyprus’ Baghdatis growing up?
He was my idol growing up, I even told him when I went for dinner with him the other day during my vacation in Limassol. I couldn’t hide it. He was my idol growing up after Federer. Federer was my idol all my life, Baghdatis came always second, because I guess of my style of play and everything. But no, I do respect Marcos, his career is still great and will always be respected because he came from a tiny country and created history himself. That was very inspiring to see, I always wanted to follow in his footsteps and achieve things that he achieved in tennis. The style he played was so enjoyable to watch on TV.
The Australian Open has followed Wimbledon by introducing final-set tiebreaks for matches at next month’s tournament.
But, while Wimbledon will have a first-to-seven-points tiebreak at 12-12, Australian Open matches which go the distance will be decided by a first-to-10-points tie-break at 6-6.
The US Open was the first grand slam to introduce final-set tiebreaks, with a first-to-seven-points game played at 6-6, meaning the three tournaments will all use a different format. The French Open is now the only slam to use a long deciding set.
The news comes at the end of a year where the divisions between tennis’ various governing bodies have become significantly more entrenched despite pledges to work together in the interests of the sport.
Tournament director Craig Tiley said the move came after the most extensive consultation in the Australian Open’s history.
He added: “We asked the players – both past and present – commentators, agents and TV analysts whether they wanted to play an advantage final set or not, and went from there.
“We went with a 10-point tiebreak at six games all in the final set to ensure the fans still get a special finale to these often epic contests, with the longer tiebreak still then allowing for that one final twist or change of momentum in the contest.
“This longer tiebreak also can lessen some of the serving dominance that can prevail in the shorter tiebreak. We believe this is the best possible outcome for both the players and the fans around the world.”
The longest Australian Open match in terms of games contested since the introduction of tiebreaks in the first four sets was played in the second round in 2017 when Ivo Karlovic defeated Horacio Zeballos 22-20 in the fifth set. The 2019 tournament begins on January 14.
“Ash has made me enjoy going to the gym. That’s a bit of a miracle. I’m usually pretty hopeless with the gym, especially when I’m on my own.”
Mostly coachless for the past three and a half years, Kyrgios was initially reluctant to add a new member to his small team. But with some pressure from his mother Norlaila and his agent John Morris, the talented Aussie hired Rezazadeh after Miami last April, to help him with his physical training and rehab.
The pair struck up a bond over the past few months and are currently in Canberra getting Kyrgios ready for 2019.
“He’s only a couple of years older than me but he’s really mature. I said to mum, ‘Why am I not like that?’” Kyrgios recalls in his PlayersVoice piece.
“‘People mature at different rates,’ she said. ‘You’ll get there!’”
Rezazadeh is only 24, but is already an established name in the strength and conditioning world. He ventured into tennis in 2015, working with Great Britain’s Dan Evans, and later with two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, among others. He also worked with boxing world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.
Born in Birmingham, UK, to Iranian parents, Rezazadeh has an infectious energy that is noticeable the second you start talking to him. You quickly understand why he was able to get Kyrgios to enjoy going to the gym and how he finds pleasure in motivating people to set goals and figure out a way to achieve them.
“He’s been awesome. He’s been a major part of me grinding out these weeks. He was with me when I had elbow issues, and he was there with me during the weeks, during the rehab. He’s been through a lot of tough times already. He’s someone I get along with well. For me, he’s been more than strength and conditioning. He does a lot of other things for me, and he’s a really good guy,” Kyrgios said of Rezazadeh in a press conference in Cincinnati last August.
Starting next year, Rezazadeh hopes to do even more, not just for Kyrgios, but for a much wider community. He plans on launching a new concept, which he has dubbed ‘Citizens of Society’, where he hopes to promote mental health and well being through health and fitness. Alongside his commitment to Kyrgios on tour, Rezazadeh wants to host meet-ups at tournaments for people who are lacking motivation or are struggling mentally in one way or another, and will offer guidance based on his experience in the fitness industry.
“What I want to do is kind of give back to people, especially the people coming to watch tennis,” Rezazadeh told Sport360 in London last month.
“They’re fans of tennis, or have an interest in sport or they like a certain player, or they want to be a tennis player one day. So what I want to do is take that concept and take it on tour in the sense that, for every tournament that I’m at, whether it’s feasible or not, but potentially at every tournament I’m at, setting up a community via social media where we’ll say where we’ll be at that tournament, and create something where I can give back and take two, three, four fans from that tournament, try to meet with them personally.
“People suffering from mental health problems, people seeking health and mental well being, whether that’s lack of motivation, whether it’s, ‘I can’t put on five kilos, how do I do that without losing 10 kilos?’ Whatever that problem is, we’ll be, ‘okay let’s make you a goal, let’s figure out how we’re going to get to that goal?’
“Whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s the gym, whether it’s thinking in a certain type of mind frame. And I’m going to say, ‘I’m not a specialist in psychology’. If you can speak to them at a level that they understand, for me that’s the most important, that relatability.
“If someone can relate to me, or someone can relate to you, I feel that we can get along quite well.
“Let’s figure out a goal, let’s give you some kind of sense of direction and you take that away, and we keep in touch via email or on social media and if you’re willing to share your stuff, that’s to their discretion, if not, no problem at all. But I’m hoping that you can be comfortable enough to figure out what’s going on, just be more aware that it’s okay to feel like this. I just want to try to get more people and create this community and try and help them.”
Rezazadeh hopes to launch the concept at the start of the 2019 season, but assures “it’s completely unrelated to tennis, for me this is just about human life.”
He wants to encourage people to talk about their issues, without worrying about being judged or perceived differently by others.
“The basis of that name, ‘Citizens of Society’, is just relatable to the world, it gives nobody a category, it’s just people of the world. The message behind this whole thing is: Keep things simple, things don’t need to be complicated, have a goal, figure out how you’re going to get there, enjoy it as it runs,” he explains.
“Anybody can come, everybody talks to each other and the massive thing is that I don’t want people asking each other what they did as their day to day job because I think that just puts so much pressure on people and it’s such a generic question but you tend to box people into categories once they tell you what they do. Sometimes you don’t realise you’re doing it.”
Rezazadeh’s fitness journey started from a young age and he recounts his own battle to lose weight, which eventually led him to getting his qualifications and carving a career as a strength and conditioning expert.
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“I’m half Iranian, half English. My family, we’re all big eaters, we like food, genetically it’s easier for us to gain weight rather than having fast metabolism. I was very overweight as a kid and it got to a point at the age of 10 I had to go to like, I don’t know how to describe it, but like a fat camp,” he says.
“It’s where kids who were in the bracket from the NHS as severely overweight had to go to lose weight because your health is at severe danger.
“I loved tennis, I loved all sports, but I couldn’t really perform at a level – I’ve got pictures I don’t show anyone. You see even now I still get embarrassed about that, where I shouldn’t be. I’m actually proud of the stuff I’ve accomplished because at the end I lost a lot of weight.
“During that time, even at 11, 12, nobody told me at the time, but I look back now and I was depressed then. Obviously I had a very bubbly personality and I always got along with everyone but socially I didn’t really interact with many kids my age because I just physically couldn’t do the stuff they could do.
“Even now, I still have times where it affects me in a certain way. You feel a little bit depressed but you figure out ways to manage that. It doesn’t mean now because I’m in the strength and conditioning industry and working with professional athletes, it doesn’t mean I’m 100 per cent perfect, I still have days where I eat s*** for fun, I have weeks where I eat s*** for fun, but it’s just trying to limit those into a time where it’s like, ‘How am I going to manage that when it happens? I’m not going to become negative’.”
Rezazadeh lost weight with encouragement from his brother, who would drag him out of bed before school each morning to exercise.
“I’d just walk at that point because I couldn’t really do anything. If it weren’t for him honestly I don’t know where I’d be right now,” he adds.
“And then from there I just started taking more interest – at 15, 16, I kind of went the other way. And that’s why I also know, as much as health and fitness has a positive impact, you can get obsessive over it, you can shift the other way and go from eating everything to eating nothing because you’re scared to gain weight.
“At 15 or 16, I didn’t let anyone cook for me, I wouldn’t eat at restaurants, I would be scared in case there was too much olive oil or this or that. I kind of went the other way and that’s why I know it’s so easy to be that way or that. It’s all about having that balance. There’s a fine line, you need to live a healthy lifestyle but you also need to live your life as well.”
Through ‘Citizens of Society’, Rezazadeh hopes he can provide some guidance for people to find that balance. He will reveal more details about the project in the coming weeks and isn’t necessarily setting a specific target when it comes to the number of people he’d like to show up.
“If I can help one person, and that person could help another person, helping others to help others, that’s the message,” he explains.
“If I can help somebody get better in Australia, if I can help in New York, Mallorca, wherever it may be, for me it’s a win. As much as I’m helping them, they’re helping me.
“Working with an athlete, as much as they’re employing me for a certain kind of service to help them, I’m learning equally off them as they are off me. I’m learning their different personalities, to coach a different way, learning different things about the day to days. It’s all a learning curve.”