LONDON — A year ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas won the NextGen Finals, the showcase tournament for players 21 and younger that is meant to be a harbinger of future greatness in men’s tennis. In Tsitsipas’s case, the future is now.
In an up-and-down final on Sunday, he rallied and held on to beat Dominic Thiem, 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (4), and win the ATP Finals, the most significant title of his young career. At 21 years 3 months, Tsitsipas became the youngest champion of the year-end event since 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt won it in 2001.
“Holding this trophy feels amazing, just unbelievable,” Tsitsipas told the crowd. “I’ve never received so much support in my life.”
It was the first ATP Finals appearance for Tsitsipas. He is still young enough to play in the NextGen Finals, but when he qualified for the ATP Finals he withdrew from the NextGen event and did not look back. He became the first player from Greece to win the ATP Finals, winning $2,656,000 for his efforts.
This was the fourth time Thiem, 26, an Austrian, had played in the ATP Finals, but the first time he had advanced beyond the round-robin stage. Along the way, he upset No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer, then ousted the defending champion, Alexander Zverev, in the semifinals on Saturday. Tsitsipas earned wins over Zverev and the United States Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev, and beat Federer in the semifinals.
Nearly every one of the 17,800 seats at the O2 Arena was filled, despite the absence of the Big Three: Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal. Neither Djokovic nor Nadal, who has secured the year-end No. 1 ranking, advanced past round-robin play. It was only the third time in the last 16 years that Djokovic, Nadal and Federer all failed to reach the final.
A year-end final featuring Tsitsipas and Thiem could be a sign that the Big Three domination will be waning, although they claimed all four major titles this year: Djokovic won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, while Nadal captured the French Open and U.S. Open. At times in the 2-hour-36-minute final, the simultaneous chants of “Tsi-tsi-pas” and “Do-min-ic” had the same vociferous ring of enthusiasm as for the bigger names.
Thiem and Tsitsipas have more in common than the identical bright orange bandannas tied around each of their heads. Both play with exquisite one-handed backhands, making Sunday’s the first all-one-handed-backhand final since Federer beat James Blake in 2006. They also both pound forehands with reckless abandon, a quality that was prominently on display during a bone-crunching first set.
Thiem needed 65 minutes to win the initial set, clinching it with a service winner up the middle that Tsitsipas barely got a racket on. Thiem might well have won the set sooner had he capitalized on a break point in the seventh game. He appeared to have won the game when Tsitsipas hit a forehand long, but a replay review showed the ball had caught the line, and Tsitsipas went on to hold serve. The next game on Thiem’s serve proved to be a battle, but he held with a lunging forehand volley that caught the side of the line.
Rather than be buoyed by being only a set away from the title, Thiem appeared wilted in the second. Tsitsipas won the first four games of the set in 15 minutes without losing a point on serve. He then broke for a 3-1 lead in the third with a series of staggering groundstrokes mixed with acrobatic jaunts across the baseline.
Thiem, a finalist against Nadal at the French Open the last two years, broke back and led by 6-5 in the third, but Tsitsipas held on to force a tiebreaker. Thiem fought back again from 1-4 down to 4-4 in the tiebreaker, but Tsitsipas closed out the match when Thiem smacked a service return wide.
Tsitsipas was playing in his 79th match of the year, only one behind the tour leader, Medvedev, who was eliminated in the round robin here. He ended with a 54-25 record, including a semifinal loss to Nadal at the U.S. Open.
The Frenchmen Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut completed an undefeated run with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Michael Venus of New Zealand to claim their first ATP Finals doubles championship.