It could be tempting to suggest that Stefanos Tsitsipas’s early exit from the men’s singles was an example of bad luck arriving in threes. He walked on to court as the No 3 seed and also the third-favourite with the bookies, and succumbed to Frances Tiafoe in three very one-sided sets.
Tempting, perhaps, but also quite wrong. There was not a whiff of misfortune about Tsitsipas’s listless performance against an opponent who threw everything at him from the opening point and found precious little coming back the other way. He surrendered a two-set lead to Novak Djokovic in the final at Roland Garros in his last competitive match, and simply seemed to pick up where he left off in Paris.
The pattern was set from the opening game, and even the very first point, as Tiafoe fired back a full-stretch, cross-court return winner from wide right which Tsitsipas scarcely bothered to chase. Two unforced errors and an overhit groundstroke later, Tiafoe was off and running with the break that eventually secured the first set.
Tiafoe was rarely under much pressure in any of his next six service games, chasing and harrying for every point. Tsitsipas had just a single opportunity to break back, but an excellent second serve by his American opponent was followed by a thumping forehand which found the corner with Tsitsipas wrongfooted.
While Tiafoe kept unforced errors to a minimum, point after point concluded with a weak shot by Tsitsipas – on his forehand in particular, which appeared embarrassed to even try to make it over the net. Every error increased Tiafoe’s already visible confidence that his opponent was there for the taking and he produced some magnificent winners, most memorably a forehand swat over his left shoulder in the eighth game while running backwards to retrieve a lob. It arrowed past a rooted Tsitsipas and found the baseline.
A double fault to open the 10th game as Tiafoe served for the first set offered the No 3 seed a glimmer of an opening, but he could not carve out another break point and then somehow declined an open invitation to attack a weak second serve by Tiafoe at set point.
Chances to break were few and far between until 4-4 in the second set, but there was always a sense that Tsitsipas would prove more vulnerable and two ugly errors to open his next service game gave Tiafoe all the encouragement he required. A pinpoint return at deuce gave him a set point and Tsitsipas’s next forehand, after missing his first serve, drifted long.
When Tiafoe got another break to open the third set, the first major upset of Wimbledon 2021 was all but secured. Tiafoe’s service games became a little more anxious and ragged as the winning line moved within sight, but several deuces only rarely turned into break-back points.
All hope visibly drained from Tsitsipas after another spirited but ultimately unsuccessful assault on the Tiafoe serve left the American just a game short of victory. Moments later Tsitsipas was 0-40 down on his own serve and a mistimed backhand on the third match point summed up his afternoon.
Tsitsipas suggested that it had been a mistake to arrive at Wimbledon without a warmup tournament on grass, and that the experience of living and playing in a “bubble” had done little for his motivation.
“It’s just not easy,” he said. “It’s a challenge on its own already. But I don’t want to put emphasis on that too much. My opponent played much better, significantly better, than me. There wasn’t the drive that I was hoping for. There wasn’t that same fighting spirit that I usually put on the court.”
Tiafoe, who has now lost only once in four first-round matches at Wimbledon, will hope to at least match his progress to the third round in 2018.
“These are the matches I really love, a lot of guys in the tennis community know that,” he said. “I play great tennis against high-calibre players and the minimum I’m going to do is at least give myself a chance to win.
“I woke up this morning like, ‘I’m beating Stefanos,’ and it happened. I think believing it when no one else does is so big.”