When Stefanos Tsitsipas arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open, amongst his baggage was a much-loved hyperlink to the previous.
It is a easy merchandise – a T-shirt that reads: USSR 1956 – nevertheless it helps illustrate one thing of the distinctive character behind one in every of tennis’ most intriguing abilities.
In 1956, Tsitsipas’ maternal grandfather Sergei Salnikov turned an Olympic champion in Melbourne, taking part in as a striker for the Soviet Union’s soccer group.
Some 65 years later, the 22-year-old Greek grandson he by no means met is chasing his first Grand Slam victory in that very same metropolis.
Household means quite a bit for Tsitsipas. And so does the Australian Open – this was the place he first introduced his sporting potential by defeating his idol Roger Federer on his approach to the 2019 semi-finals.
Since then, he has gained 4 ATP titles, together with the ATP Finals of 2019, and is presently ranked sixth on the earth.
Already seen as a pure inheritor to the present era’s dominant figures, he’s thrilling to look at, and a charismatic, refreshing presence on and off the court docket. However there’s one other, maybe surprising aspect to him.
This outwardly assured younger man for a very long time struggled with crippling shyness, and stays deeply affected by a rare near-death expertise he says continues to form him nonetheless.
The early components of Tsitsipas’ story may really feel acquainted to the tennis world. He started taking part in at a really younger age, inspired and assisted by dad and mom with a background within the sport. His mom Julia Apostoli was herself knowledgeable, and he or she and husband Apostolos Tsitsipas labored as tennis lecturers within the Athens suburbs.
“My mum was additionally my coach once I was youthful so she taught me quite a bit, together with self-discipline, generosity and kindness,” Tsitsipas tells BBC Sport.
“My dad had a giant affect too. And he nonetheless has at the moment. He is the explanation I’ve developed my recreation. His steerage and life recommendation helped me to mature.”
The younger Tsitsipas was extraordinarily gifted, cherished taking part in and loved vital early success – he was a junior world primary. On the age of 16 he started elite coaching at an academy on the French Riviera run by Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach.
However inside his story are many extra distinctive particulars, one in every of which is actually exceptional.
In October 2016, swimming off the coast of Crete, Tsitsipas and a buddy practically drowned after being dragged out to sea by a sudden, harmful present. Neither might perceive what was taking place. They each panicked and frantically tried to combat the present, exhausting themselves within the course of.
In a strong, nine-minute video weblog printed on his YouTube channel, Tsitsipas describes the horror of the expertise that adopted; how he felt completely powerless and was satisfied he would die, how he made peace with demise as vivid reminiscences of his childhood flashed throughout his thoughts.
He displays on the way in which the incident has matured and altered him – he had turned 18 solely two months earlier than – the way it has made him “fearless”. He calls it “the day I used to be speculated to lose my life”.
It was Apostolos who saved each younger males. He swam in after them and by some means managed to assist them again to security.
“What occurred was the results of a mechanism all people have inside, particularly dad and mom,” Apostolos says. “When this mechanism magically prompts, because it did that day, miracles happen.
“An important situation for this to occur is the unconditional religion we now have in what we do and what we love. What occurred confirmed the love and religion we now have for each other, that the sacrifices we make are usually not in useless.”
In his video weblog, Tsitsipas says of his dad: “If we have been speculated to die and lose our lives that day, we must do it collectively. He was a hero.
“That was the day I noticed life with a special perspective. I bear in mind after that how a lot psychologically it modified me.”
Tsitsipas now sees himself as anyone who “understands life higher, an individual who takes higher choices”. A part of that course of has additionally been influenced by occasions of the previous 12 months.
He says: “I used to be very misplaced firstly [of 2020]. I had by no means confronted one thing like this pandemic, being away from competitors and staying in a single place. However I did see that as a chance to develop and take a look at new issues, which I am tremendous grateful for. It gave me time to mirror, to see totally different sides of issues.
“I’ve matured quite a bit emotionally and mentally.”
That growth could be seen not simply on the court docket however within the journey movies he publishes on YouTube, in his pictures or podcasts. Tsitsipas enjoys numerous methods of expressing himself.
“For me it is a way of life within the second. It provides me a number of freedom. I be at liberty, like I am in my very own world. It looks like an escape from tennis, like a pastime that would probably result in a second job in the future,” he says.
Rising up, nonetheless, Tsitsipas was shy. He was bullied at college.
“It wasn’t simple for me to speak to folks,” he recollects.
“I suppose I used to be a great observer and a great listener. I used to be curious in regards to the world. I used to be very curious to see what folks needed to say and was studying from them. I used to be very quiet round my household, at all times observing.”
That character trait was additionally noticed by Mouratoglou within the south of France. The famend French coach is maybe one thing of a kindred spirit. He too lived a childhood marked by shyness.
“Stefanos developed his personal interior world,” says Mouratoglou, who, together with Apostolos, nonetheless coaches Tsitsipas.
“At the start, when he joined in 2015, he was very introverted. He used to remain inside his household surroundings, away from the others. When folks do not present their feelings, they create a really wealthy interior life.
“However he understood that I had sort of the identical experiences and we talked about it. I believe he isn’t that shy now. He is made a number of progress.”
Tsitsipas provides: “There isn’t any extra shyness. I am an individual who likes to seize moments of my life, have my ideas and my experiences shared on-line as a result of that is the way it works as of late.
“Tennis is a lonely sport so having hobbies and issues to do besides taking part in tennis is essential for somebody’s psychological well-being. My grandfather Sergei was additionally a producer, a screenwriter. He loved doing that, I suppose it comes from my Russian aspect and it is in my blood.”
Regardless of – or maybe due to – their shut bond, there are nonetheless moments of public pressure within the Tsitsipas household.
On the ATP Cup in January 2020, Tsitsipas unintentionally harm his dad as he smashed a racket along with the court docket.
A month later at an occasion in Dubai, he mentioned he generally felt his dad and mom have been “method too concerned” in his profession. In response, his mom determined to attend one in every of his information conferences, posing him a sequence of questions in regards to the significance of household to success in tennis, placing the younger man in a clumsy scenario.
“When Stefanos was youthful, it was simpler,” Apostolos says. “My double position must be reconsidered with him rising older. I want to know that he is taking up extra tasks and choices. I must hearken to him way more.
“He has labored onerous for the previous two years. He is performed a number of matches, semi-finals, finals, robust matches that introduced him extra expertise.
“He is taking some choices alone, selecting particulars he desires to deal with and the way in which he is organising his work and his group. He is assuming his tasks, he is aware of the place he desires to go and the way. It brings a greater vitality.”
Tsitsipas says: “It really works fairly properly. We now have good chemistry. We combat generally however on the finish of the day we do not separate, we’re at all times right here for one another. He’s an excellent particular person, he has a great coronary heart.
“My household is my stability and I owe quite a bit to them.”
Simply how far can Tsitsipas go? He and his group have excessive hopes for this month, for starters. In some methods it could be the proper place for that first massive win, given Melbourne’s vital Greek group.
Greece has maybe by no means been thought of a significant tennis nation, however that mentality has modified with Tsitsipas climbing the rankings. Already he’s their greatest participant in historical past.
“Stefanos has the potential to win numerous Grand Slam tournaments,” says Mouratoglou, who himself has Greek roots.
Apostolos says: “I believe he is able to win a Grand Slam. Psychologically, additionally. He believes in his capacities and no-one know his limits.”
For Tsitsipas, his household and his nation, it is a chance to put in writing a major new chapter.
“I see this simply as the start,” says Tsitsipas.
“I am certain if I win the Grand Slam I’d make my grandfather very proud. If I work onerous sufficient and have a bit little bit of luck, too, then, sure.
“It might be the perfect second of my profession, for certain.”