“Never allow a player to play the game he prefers if you can possibly force him to play any other. Never give a player a shot he likes to play.”
— Bill Tilden’s authoritative and time-tested advice. From his 1925 classic, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball
Let the tennis season begin! For the men, 2022 began with a big event, the ATP Cup; and for the women, smaller tune-up tournaments for the Australian Open.
One of the most intriguing ATP Cup matches pitted 5’7” Argentine Diego Schwartzman against 6’4” Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas. Three years ago, Tsitsipas, then 20, enjoyed a breakthrough tournament at the Aussie Open when he out-volleyed defending champion and superstar Roger Federer to make the semis.
Although the Greek ascended to a career-high No. 3, he hasn’t yet won a major, though he came close when he lost in five sets to Novak Djokovic in the 2021 French Open final. Schwartzman, a late-bloomer at age 29, hit a career-high No. 8 in 2020 and now ranks No. 13.
Could Tsitsipas, who boasts a much-bigger serve, better net game, and more versatility, outplay Schwartzman, one of the smartest, steadiest, and most tenacious players on the ATP Tour?
The David and Goliath battle started well for Tsitsipas when he overpowered Schwartzman in the opening set tiebreaker. Then Schwartzman gradually began wearing his opponent down in longer and longer rallies. In other words, he was playing the Argentine’s game more and more.
“You can’t play checkers against Schwartzman. You have to play chess,” rightly commented Tennis Channel analyst and former No. 1 Jim Courier. “You have to plot strategies for two or three shots ahead to try to create an opening. You have to be patient and not get anxious.”
Easier said than done, of course, against the dogged Schwartzman, who must have reminded Courier of another, undersized, speedy, highly competitive standout of his 1990s era, former world No. 2 Michael Chang.
What exactly could Tsitsipas, a very slight favorite, have done better tactically? First, try his utmost to avoid backhand-to-backhand rallies because Schwartzman has a decided edge there. Second, get to net as much as possible. But how? Wide slice first serves in the deuce court pulled Schwartzman way outside the alley. But the canny Argentine often conjured medium-speed, deep serve returns that neutralized the Greek. Even so, the Greek had to hit as many aggressive forehands as possible on his first groundstroke and attack.
But where? And how? Normally, it’s down the line or inside out into the open court. Plan B could be to wrong-foot the fleet-footed Schwartzman sprinting toward the middle of the baseline. Plan C could be a drop shot to Schwartzman’s backhand to make him run the longest possible diagonal distance. Plan C would put Schwartzman at the net, where he’s competent but lacks reach on volleys and height for overheads. Plan D, to keep Schwartzman guessing, would have been to occasionally serve and volley and hit lots of short angled volleys into the open court.
As it turned out, Tsitsipas lacked tactical ideas, patience, and consistency. He got bogged down in the backcourt, made frequent backhand errors, overhit some forehands, and when he did get to net, he too often missed volleys or got passed. David slew Goliath 6-7, 6-3, 6-3.
So it’s back to the drawing board for the Greek. He can learn a lot from this match by watching it on video. The key lessons are to try his utmost not to play the other’s guy’s game and to sharpen all phases of his offense.