Stefanos Tsitsipas is back in familiar territory at the Australian Open, reaching the semifinals for the fourth time in his past five visits after beating exciting Next Gen star Jiri Lehecka on Tuesday.
The Greek needed five sets to down Jannik Sinner on Sunday but, back in the night session at Rod Laver Arena, advanced over the Czech in three, 6-3 7-6(2) 6-4.
Tsitsipas continues to be clutch in big moments, saving all eight break points faced.
“It was a very difficult three-setter, one of the most difficult ones I had so far in the competition,” Tsitsipas said afterward on court.
Tsitsipas reiterated his love of Australia and extended an invitation to actress Margot Robbie to watch him play.
Watching Tsitsipas play is often box office.
Tsitsipas didn’t drop a set through three rounds, and it seemed the trend would continue after he claimed the opening two sets against ball-crusher Sinner.
An early break for Sinner in the third turned things around – and facing break points became commonplace for the third seed.
He faced 26 overall but saved 22, regularly finding first serves.
Maybe it’s not so incredible.
After all, besides Tuesday, Tsitsipas saved all 12 break points against Roger Federer in Melbourne during his breakout 2019 major.
Lehecka’s past results at Grand Slams couldn’t have foretold his success in Melbourne – he lost in the first round in all four majors last year – but his jump in the rankings might have.
The 21-year-old rose from 141 to 81 in the 2022 year-end standings.
He outlasted Cam Norrie, one of tennis’ fittest players, in the third round – Norrie was slightly hindered by a knee issue – then collected his first top-10 win over a surging Felix Auger-Aliassime to book his quarterfinal berth.
Story of the match
Lehecka’s breakthrough event last year came in Rotterdam as a qualifier. Progressing to the semifinals, he extended Tsitsipas to three sets – helped by an early break.
On Tuesday, it was Tsitsipas who broke early for 2-0.
Lehecka must have thought he had done enough when his volley landed in the corner, but on the full stretch Tsitsipas delivered an outstanding lob that prompted a backhand.
Tsitsipas cruised through his service games until 1-2 in the second. He, too, came up against five break points – but saved them all. He shook his racquet skyward, and his throngs of supporters in a city with a substantial Greek population responded.
“For me the Australian Open is always going to be my home Grand Slam,” said Tsitsipas. “I feel very much loved here.”
However, Lehecka had momentum. His fizzed groundstrokes, including his forehands down the line, left the crowd gasping at times.
When Tsitsipas made it to the tiebreak, those break points loomed large for Lehecka.
And sure enough, Tsitsipas produced sizzling tennis. He struck five winners, ending the set with a rasping forehand crosscourt.
“The way I saw it was, that was my opportunity to take a massive lead there and I’m very happy with the way I closed the second set,” said Tsitsipas.
To his credit, Lehecka didn’t buckle starting the third. Indeed, he conjured three straight break points at 3-3.
Tsitsipas pumped his fist skywards when saving the third one with an ace, and did the same on the next point with an outstanding forehand dig prior to a Lehecka volley error.
Lehecka finally did buckle at 4-5 to end proceedings.
Tsitsipas improved to 6-0 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, 4-0 in Melbourne.
Overall at this Australian Open, he has saved 43 of 49 break points.
How did he save those three straight break points in the third?
“Experience and some good Spartan attitude too,” he said.
What this means for Tsitsipas
If head-to-head records mean anything, Tsitsipas is on his way to a first final at Melbourne Park and second in his Grand Slam career.
He holds a 5-0 mark against Thursday’s opponent, Karen Khachanov. Khachanov, however, is now finding his best form in Grand Slams, making two semifinals in succession after defeating Sebastian Korda earlier on Tuesday.
What’s next for Lehecka?
His emergence is a boost for men’s tennis in the Czech Republic.
The lone man in the top 100 while nine women feature, Lehecka’s foray to the quarterfinals this fortnight will push his ranking to just inside the top 40.
No surprise, then, if he earns a seeding at Roland Garros.
Source: Ravi Ubha