July 19, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

First Wimby for teens Rublev and Tsitsipas

WIMBLEDON – The two career moments took place within moments of each other, on two courts in the field at the Bank of England Sports Grounds that were kitty-corner to each other. 

And if the moment was identical, the reactions were wildly different.

Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, still just 18, was the first to make his first career Wimbledon main draw. Just a year ago, he was playing the junior event.

For more than three hours, he had maintained his youthful composure. After a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 win over Joris de Loore of the Netherlands, the teenager leaped into the air several times and had a look of pure joy on his face,  

As Tsitsipas celebrated, 19-year-old Andrey Rublev of Russia was serving for the match against 35-year-old Paul-Henri Mathieu of France just a few feet away.

He closed out a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4 victory that put him into the main draw in his third career attempt to qualify.

Rublev’s angst-riddled court drama already is a well-oiled machine. But he had almost no reaction after this career moment. He clenched his first, made the sign of the cross, looked up to the sky, and went up to shake Mathieu’s hand.

Here’s how it looked, at it happened.

Slow and steady for Tsitsipas

With a one-handed backhand, an all-court game and matinee-idol looks, Tsitsipas stayed in the junior ranks until his eligibility was used up. That’s fairly rare these days with the top tier of promising players.

He already had turned 18 when he played the US Open juniors last September. Tsitsipas lost to eventual champion Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, two years younger, in the semifinals there. He lost to another Canadian, Denis Shapovalov, a year younger, in a junior Wimbledon final a year ago.

It was one of the finest junior matches in recent years – chock-full of one-handed backhands, chip and charges, net-rushes and good sportsmanship.

He has often be overshadowed by more precocious players. But with his ATP Tour ranking at No. 190 coming into this week, Tsitsipas is on a steady, studied path.  

His first full year in the professional ranks hasn’t resulted in a big rankings leap. But he has been gaining in experience as he fills out his lanko 6-foot-4 frame.

New in the top 100

Rublev, 6-foot-2, listed at just 150 pounds has an extraordinary-looking face. It can go from baleful, to despairing, to brilliantly sunny in the blink of an eye.

His path has been different than that of Tsitsipas.

A year older and a regular junior doubles partner of top-20 player Alexander Zverev, Rublev just broke into the top 100 for the first time last week. He reached the quarter-finals on grass in Halle, Germany.

This is his third try at the Wimbledon qualifying. A year ago, he lost in straight sets to the hero of the week, Brit Marcus Willis, in the second round.

Rublev became the No. 1 junior in the world after the 2014 US Open. He won the junior French Open that spring. And he decided to forego his last year of junior eligibility and hit the pro circuit full-time.

Tsitsipas became No. 1 just before last year’s French Open juniors.

On their two courts Thursday, the dynamics were very different.

Tsitsipas’ opponent, de Loore, is 24 and has been a professional for six years. But only in the last 12 months has he been ranked high enough to try to qualify at majors. He has now tried each at each one once; this was his closest effort yet, against the most beatable opponent he has faced.

But he will have other opportunities.

Adieu for Mathieu

Across the way, there was a poignancy in Rublev’s victory over Mathieu. The Frenchman said goodbye at his home Grand Slam in Paris earlier this month. And on that day, he said that he just wanted to play Wimbledon one more time.

He was denied at the final stage, by a kid who will be playing Wimbledon for the first time. There’s a certain symmetry to that. As a door closes for an older man, while a window opens for the kid.

Ranked No. 138 now, after dealing with several major injuries through the latter stages of his career, Mathieu has four career ATP Tour titles and earned his first career ranking when Rublev was less than a year old. 

Twice, he has reached the fourth round at Wimbledon. This was only his second time even travelling to Roehampton for the qualifying in a Wimbledon history that stretches back to 2002.

It felt, by the way they greeted each other at the net, that Rublev sensed what the moment meant for Mathieu.

Tsitsipas

One man was saying hello, the other was saying goodbye.

But in the end, it turns out that you arrive, and you leave, the very same way – with a big backpack on your back,  your tournament credential swinging in the breeze, alone with your thoughts.

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