When Federer eyed the other half of the Dubai draw last week, it is likely Tsitsipas’ name stood out as his biggest obstacle on his quest for title number 100.
Tsitsipas duly did his part to reach the final, overcoming top seed Kei Nishikori in the quarters before surviving a marathon semi-final against Gael Monfils on Friday, and Federer swiftly followed suit after dismissing Borna Coric in straight sets.
The build-up to Saturday’s final will rightly be dominated by talk of Federer’s hopes of becoming just the second men’s player to reach 100 singles titles after Jimmy Connors, with the American having 109 to his name.
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Federer has been stuck on 99 not out since winning the Swiss Indoors in October, and like a cricketer chasing one more run, or a snooker player seeking one more pot, this final will not feel like the rest for the 37-year-old as he chases a remarkable century, and those months of waiting will only have added to the pressure he has no doubt placed on his own shoulders.
Of course, Federer has faced tougher challenges in greater arenas around the world, but in Dubai he must stop a 20-year-old who proved more than his equal in Melbourne two months ago.
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Tsitsipas is a player very much on the rise. His victory over Monfils ensured he will break into the world’s top 10 for the first time on Monday, while the final in Dubai offers him the opportunity to add a first ATP 500 title to the two 250s he has won in Marseille, just last week, and Stockholm last October.
Players of his age would normally be daunted by the task he faces on Saturday, but for Tsitsipas he simply needs to draw on his Australian Open four-set win over Federer back in January.
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Tsitsipas’ run to the semis in Melbourne highlighted his potential as a future Grand Slam champion, with some deeming his last-16 victory over Federer as a changing of the guard.
The fact Tsitsipas lost in straight sets to Rafael Nadal in the last four cooled those expectations somewhat, particularly with Novak Djokovic going on to destroy Nadal in the final. Only when Tsitsipas topples Djokovic will he have truly assumed the throne.
But there is no denying Tsitsipas is on a hot streak after victory in Marseille last week, and he is not shy of admitting how desperate he was to break into the top 10.
“I’m thinking about it almost every day, I want it badly, I want it to happen very much. I’m going to have to dominate more. It’s a good motivation,” he said this week.
“I feel like I have the game to be there already, but it’s better for me to happen as soon as possible.”
At the tail-end of 2018, Tsitsipas set himself four targets; reaching a Grand Slam semi-final, breaking into the top 10, winning an ATP 1000 title, and reaching the ATP Finals.
He achieved the first goal at the first Grand Slam of 2019, and has now broken into the top 10. Beating Federer will not tick off another target, but it will set him up perfectly going into the 1000s at Indian Wells and Miami later this month.
On current form, a first showing at the ATP Finals also awaits, but with nine months and three Grand Slams still to go until that season-ending tournament, there is every chance he could shatter his own expectations.
But first, a final against Federer. The old meets the new just two months later – let’s see if youth prevails once more.
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