Stefanos Tsitsipas buckled but didn’t break against a tenacious, promising opponent to reach the last 32 at the Australian Open for the fourth consecutive time.
The Greek sensation became the first top-five men’s seed to lose a set this fortnight, which he perhaps wouldn’t have minded. The extra court time came after a less than ideal build-up following off-season elbow surgery.
The fourth seed finished with a bang, however, to beat Sebastian Baez 7-6(1) 6-7(5) 6-3 6-4 in three hours, 22 minutes on a sun-kissed afternoon at Margaret Court Arena.
“It wasn’t easy. I’m glad I overcame that obstacle. Lots of fighting, a bit of swearing, but glad to be in the third round,” smiled Tsitsipas in his on-court interview. “It was a pretty hot day today but I tried to play with heart, and it paid out in the end.”
He tweaked his tactics in the final two sets.
“I tried to go for my shots a bit more,” said Tsitsipas, who made 47 net approaches in total. “Certain moments I got a bit lucky with finding the right depth and coming in.
“On the return, I tried to stay as close to the baseline as possible which cut out time for him and push him back a little more. I think those were some of the things I really tried to work on.”
Tsitsipas made his Grand Slam breakthrough at senior level in 2019 when he stunned Roger Federer in Melbourne. Astoundingly, he saved all 12 break points faced.
It seemed the first set against the Argentinean on Thursday would go against him with the tables turned. Tsitsipas held 0-40 advantages in Baez’s opening two service games yet didn’t capitalize, giving the 21-year-old belief in his first top-10 challenge.
Baez stands 170cm like Diego Schwartzman and mirrors his famous countryman, who was upset earlier in the day, in several ways.
He wears a cap backward and can defend thanks to lightning pace but prefers to dictate.
His early resistance paid off and the former junior No.1, like Tsitsipas, broke for 6-5 in the opener.
But Tsitsipas hit back and engineered a flawless tiebreak, highlighted by a laser, one-handed backhand down the line.
One wondered how Baez would react next? Would he fizzle?
No break points surfaced in the second set, although Tsitsipas needed to be alert at 5-6. A 40-15 lead gone, Baez’s ripped forehand return barely missed at deuce.
An irritated Tsitsipas resorted to yelling at his racket as the battle heightened.
Tsitsipas forged ahead 5-3 in the ensuing tiebreak with an angled backhand winner, only for Baez to claim the next four points. A forehand winner down the line officially levelled matters.
Baez exhibited the grit he showed last season, where he won six Challenger titles on clay and did it the hard way. Of all the participants at the Next Gen ATP Finals, he stood out in not receiving a wildcard in 2021.
Contesting matches at such high intensity will take more getting used to. Baez needed a medical timeout ahead of the third set, the area behind both knees receiving attention.
He then fell behind 5-0 but the drama returned when Tsitsipas dropped three straight games. Baez, at a career high No.88, rued a missed second-serve return to begin the ninth game.
Tsitsipas picked off Baez to break for 2-1 in the fourth – sending a forehand into the open space off his rival’s smash – and never flinched again, despite still not being entirely happy with his performance.
He crushed a serve down the middle to end the contest, seconds after a time violation warning.
Baez exited the court to substantial applause with a maiden appearance at a major, five-set victory and top-10 clash all building blocks in his development.
“I wish him the best,” said Tsitsipas. “He’s a good player, one of the biggest forehands that I faced so I really hope with the right work and mentality, he can reach his goals and make an impact in the game.”
Source: Ravi Ubha