Stefanos Tsitsipas already had a lot going on as he arrived at the French Open.
He was trying to reach the level of the Grand Slam champions who came before him, like Novak Djokovic, who has beaten Tsitsipas in two major tournament finals, when he suddenly had to defend an attack from the sport’s young stars, led by Carlos Alcaraz, a 20-year-old Spaniard ranked No. 1 in the world. Tsitsipas, 24, has another priority, too — helping his younger brother Petros, 22, establish his own identity and become a top doubles player. They plan to play as many as nine events together this season, regardless of whether that helps Stefanos’s singles play, which Petros isn’t sure that it always does.
“I don’t think I would have done this for anyone else,” Tsitsipas said last week, when his march toward his French Open quarterfinal showdown with Alcaraz on Tuesday was still two wins away. “This is our dream.”
Tennis has always been the ultimate family affair for the Tsitsipas clan. The mother, Julia Salnikova Apostoli, was a top Russian player in the 1980s and was once the world’s best junior. The father, Apostolos, is also a seasoned player, though not a former top touring pro. He trained as a coach and a line judge and now coaches Stefanos, though does not meddle much when his sons are playing together.
There are two other tennis-playing Tsitsipas siblings, Pavlos, 17, and Elisavet, 15.
Too much family involvement can have its hazards in tennis, as the Tsitsipas family demonstrated at the Italian Open last month, when both of Stefanos’s parents were talking to him during his match against Daniil Medvedev of Russia. After Julia spoke to him in Russian, giving him instructions that Medvedev could easily hear and understand, Stefanos used some salty language and ordered her from his courtside box, which caused a mini scandal in Greece. He declined to comment on the matter upon his arrival in Paris.
For the moment, his relationship with Petros is far less fraught. But navigating it all with a tennis racket, especially when the activity dominates a family’s life, requires its own set of skills, particularly when one sibling’s talent evolves in a way the other’s does not, which is almost inevitably the case in tennis.
Early last year, after much time and too many losses on tennis’s back roads, Petros Tsitsipas made a big decision — it was time to stop trying to make it as a singles player like his big brother and make doubles his game. There was more than tennis involved with the move. He was 21 and coming off an injury, with a singles ranking in the 700s. The time had come for Petros to forge his own identity and stop struggling through the lowest level tournaments — “making it through the jungle,” as he described it last week at Roland Garros.
Doubles offered a path of less resistance. Good players who can’t hang near or with the most elite players on the tour and are game to learn doubles’ unique angles, quirks and strategies can earn a decent living. They just have to be willing to compete for far less prize money as the undercard or late-night programming at tournaments, especially when they are climbing the ladder.
This is where Stefanos comes in handy. Because of his high singles ranking (currently No. 5), the Tsitsipas brothers can get into big-time tournaments that Petros might not have qualified for with a lower-ranked partner. Also, given Stefanos’s star power, tournament organizers are more likely to offer them a wild-card entry into the doubles draw.
That said, for Petros to climb the doubles rankings in a way he was not able to in singles, he has to play more than just eight or nine times a year with Stefanos, to learn the game and win as much possible. Lately, when his older brother has not been available, he has been playing in tournaments on the Challenger tour with Sander Arends, a 31-year-old from the Netherlands who never cracked the top 1,000 in singles but is ranked 98th in doubles. Last year, Petros had a different teammate nearly every week. He has climbed to 115th in the rankings, from below 400 two years ago.
“It’s like learning to play chess,” Petros said.
He can find an easy role model across the locker room. Jamie Murray spent years trying to be known as something besides the brother of Andy Murray, who in 2013 became the first man from Britain in 77 years to win Wimbledon.
Jamie Murray said he still hears people say, “That’s Andy Murray’s brother” when he walks around the grounds of a tennis tournament, something he learned to accept years ago.
“No point to fighting it,” he said.
But Murray said he sensed that people stopped thinking of him as a sibling of someone better at his sport than he was after 2016. All it took was pairing with his brother to win the Davis Cup and becoming the world’s top-ranked doubles player — the same year his brother became the top-ranked singles player.
Now he sees Petros trying to accomplish the same thing, to make his own way with people looking at him mostly as just someone’s brother.
“It’s not easy,” he said.
When Petros is playing with Stefanos rather than with a specialist, doubles feels like a different game, Petros said. The specialist may be better at doubles than Stefanos but he is not nearly as good a tennis player. With a specialist, the game is all about tactics and strategy. With Stefanos — as with any great singles player — it’s all about feel and improvisation.
“More freelance,” Petros said, like the difference between playing sheet music or jamming with a uniquely gifted musician who thrives on spontaneity.
It used to be accepted as conventional wisdom that playing doubles improves the singles game, keeping reflexes sharp and the mind focused throughout a big tournament. Petros isn’t so sure that is always true, especially with the increasingly physical grind that singles has become and how different the quick rallies of doubles are from the baseline battles of singles.
That has not been an issue at the French Open. The Tsitsipas brothers lost a heartbreaking first-round match in a third-set tiebreaker.
“Trust me, it sucks,” Stefanos said the next day. “To be losing that with your brother, it sucks more than usual.”
There is no turning back now, though. As long as Stefanos is not too worn out from a deep run at the French Open, the brothers hope to play Wimbledon, where men’s doubles will be best-of-three sets this year instead of best of five. From there, they also want to play the summer tournaments in North America, including the U.S. Open.
Petros has worked so hard, Stefanos said. He wants to help him get as far as he can.
“I just want to go for it,” Stefanos said.
They want to represent Greece in the Olympics, and win the Davis Cup.
“Doing that with your brother is probably the most beautiful thing you can witness on a tennis court,” he said.
First though, he has another matter to contend with: Alcaraz in the French Open singles quarterfinals.
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