LONDON (AFP) – If Stefanos Tsitsipas becomes Greece’s first Grand Slam champion at Wimbledon, his first thoughts will be for his father Apostolos whose split-second bravery once saved his son from drowning.
There are not many athletes whose careers and outlooks have been forged by near-death experiences, but the 22-year-old world number four is an exception.
In 2015, while taking part in a third-tier Futures event in Crete, a teenage Tsitsipas and a friend went swimming but almost fatally misjudged the currents’ strength.
The two boys were just moments from being swept away until quick-thinking Apostolos dived in to guide them back to safety.
“We couldn’t breathe, I felt awful to be inside the water and was terrified. I didn’t know how all this was going to end,” Tsitsipas recalled.
“My father saw us from afar and he jumped in, started swimming towards us and pushed us towards the beach. I was just a few breaths away from dying.”
“If we were supposed to die and lose our lives that day, we would have to do it together. My father was a hero.
“That was the day I saw life with a different perspective. I remember after that how much psychologically it changed me.”
Tsitsipas shares the same birthday with Pete Sampras, who is also of Greek origin, and is studious, contemplative.
He speaks Greek, English and Russian and when he is not producing his own on-the-road podcast is trying to master Spanish and Chinese.
Sport is in his genes. Life-saving Apostolos is his coach while mother Julia Salnikova is an ex-tennis pro. His grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was a 1956 Olympic gold medallist in football playing for the Soviet Union.
Since turning pro in 2016, Tsitsipas’s career has been on a steadily upward curve. He was ranked 210 in the world in his first season but was inside the top 100 by the end of 2017 and as high as five in 2018, the first Greek to achieve such a status.
By the time he was 21 he had already swept wins over the sport’s three biggest beasts – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Tsitsipas was the first Greek man to win a tour title.
This month he came agonisingly close to the French Open crown, racing into a two sets lead in the final over Djokovic before the world number one mounted an epic comeback to claim victory.
Tsitsipas has seven titles including a first Masters at Monte Carlo in this year’s clay court swing.
While he was still 21, he captured the 2019 season-ending ATP Finals title, becoming the youngest champion since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001.
Proving he has nerves of steel when the pressure is ramped up, Tsitsipas saved 12 of 12 break points to defeat Federer on his way to the 2019 Australian Open semi-final.
Blond-haired and standing six-foot-four tall, Tsitsipas is the sport’s picture-perfect public face and seen as the natural heir to Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
Forty years on from Bjorn Borg mania at Wimbledon, he is likely to find himself in the crosshairs of the British tabloids over the next two weeks at the All England Club.