PARIS — Stefanos Tsitsipas’s father is Greek. His mother is Russian. And he believes being a product of two disparate cultures is the foundation for his soaring tennis career.
“It was very important that I came from a second background, that I had two different cultures, Greek and Russian, involved in my life,” Tsitsipas said. “It gave me a whole different perspective about things.”
Ranked 205th a year ago, Tsitsipas, 19, is now 39th. His best results have come on clay, including a run to the final of Barcelona, beating three top-20 players en route without dropping a set against any. He began his French Open on Monday with a 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3 victory over Carlos Taberner.
In the second round, Tsitsipas faces seventh-seeded Dominic Thiem, whom he beat in Barcelona, 6-3, 6-2.
Tsitsipas is a former No. 1 junior player, just like his mother, Julia Apostoli, formerly Salnikova. She once seemed to be on her way to becoming one of the best tennis players the Soviet Union had produced.
The daughter of an Olympic men’s soccer gold medalist, Apostoli was the highest-ranked woman in the Soviet Union when she was 16 and 17.
She represented the country in Fed Cup, and notched a win over Virginia Wade, a three-time Grand Slam champion, in 1981. But restrictions on her travel and clashes with federation coaches — they took particular umbrage to her having a Yugoslavian boyfriend, she said — limited her opportunities.
“Every Soviet player would have problems like that, but me especially, because I was always in front of the coaches, under their eye,” she said.
She quit tennis for a year and studied journalism at a Moscow university, calling the entire experience “very frustrating.” Her career never fully took flight.
“I didn’t have the knowledge, I was not wise enough,” Apostoli said. “I didn’t have any coach, I did it all by myself. You can’t go very far like this.”
After leaving the Soviet Union, she was only able to achieve a career-high WTA ranking of 194th in 1990, focusing instead on playing mostly in French club leagues.
Despite the early highs, Apostoli is reluctant to call her own tennis achievements “great.”
“Yes, now I can understand what a huge achievement it was, but at that time, no,” she said. “When you work, and you have some talent in a game and it comes naturally, it doesn’t really impress you so much. But now I understand that it wasn’t easy, because the competition was really, really strong.”
After she married Apostolos Tsitsipas, her tennis focus centered on her children, the first of whom, Stefanos, seemed especially ready for the sport since he was born.
“Believe me: my doctor, who helped me to deliver the child, he told me that Stefanos was coming out with his hand up, like a tennis player,” Apostoli said, laughing and holding her arm as if ready to hit an overhead smash.
Though she had been a world-class player at a young age, Apostoli doubted her ability to raise a champion.
“I always knew he was going to do something in tennis, but I didn’t know how,” she said.
Apostolos Tsitsipas took the lead from there, formally studying coaching so he could guide Stefanos into the pro ranks. Still, Apostoli continued to have her say on his career, eager to make sure his work stayed rigidly structured, in keeping with the Soviet ethos she knew.
“I was very upset when warm-ups were not done properly for practice, or some discipline problems happened on the way,” she said. “In my country, we were very serious about these things. Not only in tennis; it’s the culture of sport.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas said that influence set him apart from the other kids growing up playing tennis in the country.
“My mom actually gave me a lot of discipline in my game,” he said. “That’s what I believe helped me a lot: discipline. Which, in Greek culture, is not that common, I would say.”
That model of Soviet tennis mothering has worked repeatedly in the young generation now breaking through in men’s tennis. Third-ranked Alexander Zverev of Germany and No. 25 Denis Shapovalov of Canada also have mothers who were tennis players in the Soviet Union.
For Tsitsipas, that strict Soviet foundation is balanced by optimism and a positive spirit that he credits to his father, who quit his job to travel with him to junior tournaments when he was 11.
“It got more tense when I did all the traveling, but I saw it as something fun for me, something entertaining,” Tsitsipas said. “I tried to be professional and disciplined, but it was nice traveling with my dad. Now, I understand the importance of it, and what a big role it played in my career.”
As he makes his way around the elite professional circuit for the first time, hes has found an outlet for his personality: travel vlogging. He earnestly and enthusiastically documents the various tour stops, filming himself as a guide wherever he is that week (his most recent video documented a visit to Vatican City during the Italian Open in Rome.)
Tsitsipas called the videos “the only thing that keeps me less stressed and less disappointed” through the weekly ups and downs of the sport.
“I want to inspire other people that want to do the same, to give them an idea how the tour works and how tennis is, and how good traveling can be, sometimes,” he said. “It comes naturally, and when I do it, I feel much happier than before.”
Tsitsipas is similarly ebullient on court, using his tall, broad-shouldered frame to maximum effect. He plays assertive tennis, with big serving and a willingness to come forward, using his one-handed backhand to open up the court and his forehand to finish points.
“Confident tennis — it’s the way I’ve been playing all this time,” he said. “It’s all about confidence, and it kind of reflects the person I am, and the way I’ve grown up.”