It’s around this time of the football season that talk turns to who is deserving of the Manager of the Season award. Is it the manager who looks like leading his team to the title? Is it the manager whose team are far exceeding expectations? Or is it the manager who might keep his team in the division despite having a tiny budget?
The merits of each criteria can be debated – as they can when it comes to who has been the male tennis player of the season so far.
Novak Djokovic might seem like the obvious choice, having won the only Grand Slam of 2021 at the Australian Open, but there are other strong contenders. Hubert Hurkacz is the only multiple winner on the ATP Tour so far, having won the Delray Beach Open and then the Miami Open. Andrey Rublev has won the most matches (24) and a title in Rotterdam.
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But Stefanos Tsitsipas has a compelling case after beating Rublev in the final of the Monte-Carlo Masters final at the weekend.
The 22-year-old had enjoyed a solid-to-strong year before clinching his biggest title in over a year in Monte Carlo. He made the semi-finals of the Australian Open, memorably beating Rafael Nadal in five sets in the quarter-finals, reached the semi-finals in Rotterdam, quarter-finals in Marseille, final in Acapulco, quarter-finals in Miami and then won Monte Carlo without dropping a set.
His results have seen him move to the top of the ATP Race to Turin, which only counts events played in 2021 and determines which eight players compete at the ATP Finals.
"It’s just the beginning," said Tsitsipas when asked about his rise to No 1 in the race. But will this be the beginning of something more for Tsitsipas?
Despite his encouraging start to the year there was the feeling his results could have been even better, in particular in Marseille, where he was defending champion and lost to world No 93 Pierre-Hugues Herbert, and Miami, where he admitted he suffered a “self-explosion” as he lost in three sets to Hurkacz having led 6-2 2-0.
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But the way he swept through the draw in Monte Carlo offers plenty of promise for the future. He blew away Dan Evans in the semi-finals for the loss of just three games and then outclassed Rublev, who had beaten Rafael Nadal so impressively in the quarter-finals and had won the previous match against Tsitsipas in straight sets in Rotterdam.
What stood out from his last two matches of the tournament was the way Tsitsipas didn’t let up after taking the lead and kept putting pressure on his opponent, something he wasn’t able to do in his losses to Herbert and Hurkacz.
Tsitsipas now heads to Barcelona where he will be the second seed behind Nadal and it will be fascinating to see what he can achieve over the next few months on his favourite surface, where his win percentage is 0.724 compared to 0.644 on hard courts and 0.533 on grass.
He made the semi-finals at Roland-Garros last year and would surely be third favourite behind Nadal and Djokovic if the tour was heading to Paris this week. As it is, the form of Djokovic will be closely monitored after his surprise straight-sets loss to Evans while Nadal also looks as though he has work to do to hit top form, having described his serving against Rublev as a "disaster".
World No 2 Daniil Medvedev doesn’t look like a danger on clay - when he returns to tour following a positive Covid-19 test – Dominic Thiem is out injured and the rest of the top 10 are either not in the best form or limited in action.
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The conditions seem to be there for Tsitsipas to have a very successful few months – and he seems aware of that. After his defeat to Hurkacz in Miami he said he missed a chance to "show something greater", but after winning in Monte Carlo he spoke of his determination to win the tournament.
"I didn't see a reason for me to leave from here without the trophy. I felt like I deserved it. I've put so much effort and so much concentration into it.
"More opportunities like this are going to show up and come up in the future, so I need to be ready to show my consistency."
Tsitsipas has actually already shown consistency over the last few years, winning more matches (105) than anyone on the ATP Tour since the start of 2019 aside from Djokovic (108). Now the challenge is more finals and more silverware.
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