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Tsitsipas and the “donkey’s patience”, the weapon to storm Roland Garros

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BARCELONA – Stefanos Tsitsipas has found a new weapon to add victories on clay. It combines the teachings of the animal kingdom with a theological virtue, and is summed up with a Greek expression: donkey’s patience.

Donkey’s? Yes, donkey’s. It’s not an insult to the opponent, as North American Frances Tiafoe misthought when he heard Tsitsipas himself say he had had “donkey’s patience,” after his victory over Alex De Minaur at the Conde de Godo tournament in Barcelona. “Mad respect for this dude, great player, but you gotta chill with these quotes, my dude. SMH (internet slang that stands for “shanking my head”, to express disapproval),” the world number 11 wrote on his social networks.

This is not about a self-definition either. The Greek tennis player is too sober – and good – to present himself as a donkey.

It is simply a playing strategy that Tsitsipas summed up for CLAY: “In tennis, it’s easy to be in a hurry. On clay, where there are long exchanges and the pace and bounce of the ball are different than on harder surfaces, it’s about being able to play aggressively, but not in a hurry. It’s a tactic and you work on it throughout the match.”

A biblical idiomatic phrase more familiar for the Westerns: “More patience than Job”. In Greece, the country of the world number five tennis player, they call it “donkey’s patience”. Tsitsipas translated it literally into English and hence the bewilderment. There were those who laughed and also those who took it badly or did not understand it.

The donkey is an essential animal in Greece. On the islands, before and after the Axis occupation during World War II (between 1941 and 1944), it was practically the only means available to the locals to transport all kinds of goods from the countryside or the port to the inhabited areas.

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The donkeys worked from morning to night, withstanding extreme weights and conditions. They still do so today in areas inaccessible to vehicles. And, on islands like Santorini, tourists eager for a picturesque souvenir do not hesitate to climb on the back of this animal to overcome the tremendous slope that separates the harbour from the capital.

But why is Tsitsipas now talking about ‘donkey patience’? Because Roland Garros is approaching and, with it, a new opportunity for the 24-year-old Greek to conquer his first major. In 2021 he fell at the doorstep.

Although he joked that he does not remember it, he played the final of the French Open -never a Greek tennis player had done it before- and lost to Novak Djokovic, in an agonizing match that he dominated by two sets to zero.

The world number one was his tormentor again this year, when, at the Australian Open, Tsitsipas faced his second chance to win a major. The Serb took the cup again, this time without giving him a set.

Like the rest of the members of his generation, the 2018 NextGen ATP tournament champion has seen his career trapped. Right between the sweeping power of the big three (Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Djokovic), unrivaled hoarder of titles, and the generation led by Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, that’s already arguing with the Tsitsipas, Ruud, Medvedev and Rublev for the succession to the throne.

“Disputing the Godó final is my first big success after the Australian Open,” said Tsitsipas in Barcelona, after Alcaraz deprived him of the title. “I’ve had a difficult time from a psychological and physical point of view, so to be here at this moment for me is a great achievement,” confessed the Greek, looking serious, without detailing the battles that waged his mind in recent times.

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One of them, however, was resolved on the Rafa Nadal court. In that scenario that he particularly likes, inspired perhaps by the celebration of Sant Jordi that fascinates him so much (it is celebrated on April 23 in Catalonia and, following the tradition, men give a rose to women and women give them a book), Tsitsipas came to a conclusion. He needs to arm himself with patience to improve his results on clay, the surface on which he started playing tennis.

“It’s important to have a lot of patience on clay, because the stroke exchanges are long and it’s a weapon that helps you make life difficult for your opponent. That clicked for me here and I think it’s definitely an element that can give you a lot of victories on this surface and that I look for in each of my matches,” Tsitsipas told CLAY.

The Greek monk Paisios of Mount Athos said that “patience is cultivated in winter and blossoms in spring,” just in time for Tsitsipas to be assisted on the clay at the upcoming Roland Garros.

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