Greek duo relish home away from home

  • Reem Abulleil

“Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen.”

That line, from the ancient Greek poem ‘Iliad’, was posted by Stefanos Tsitsipas on his Instagram after he came through a tricky four-set victory over Viktor Troicki on Wednesday. The accompanying photo featured the No. 14 seed celebrating, with a Greek flag swaying in the background.

Maria Sakkari commented on the post with an “Oh yeah” along with a heart and Greek flag emoji.

The second-round matches of Tsitsipas and Sakkari were scheduled back-to-back on Court 3 on Wednesday – a decision that was much appreciated by the hundreds of Greek fans who got to camp out in one place to support their star duo.

Positioned up in the stands behind the baseline to the right of the umpire, a large group of Greek supporters sang their lungs out for more than four hours as they helped carry Tsitsipas and Sakkari into the third round. If you closed your eyes, you would have thought you were at an Olympiacos game and a Champions League final was on the line. The chants are adapted from Greece’s soccer league, and are commonly used by fans of South Melbourne FC.

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Melbourne's Greek community has turned out in force at AO 2019

“I was at the ice bath after my match and the chants were still buzzing in my head,” Tsitsipas admitted after his victory.

Thirteen years on from Cyprus’ Marcos Baghdatis’ run to the Australian Open final, Melbourne’s massive Greek community – the city has the largest Greek population outside Greece – has not one, but two players to cheer on.

With both Tsitsipas and Sakkari ranked inside the top 45, Greek tennis fans mobilised from the start of the Australian Open, flags draped around their shoulders, chants memorised and vocal cords warmed up.

On Wednesday, both Sakkari and Tsitsipas produced gutsy performances, with the chanting Greek crowd providing a non-stop soundtrack that could probably be heard all the way from Flinders Street.

“It’s brilliant, because for so many years we haven’t had like a great, great Greek tennis player, so to finally have two, it’s brilliant for us,” said Adonis, a fan dressed in a Giannis Antetokounmpo basketball jersey said courtside. He drove from Sydney to join his friends at the tennis.

“O’po po, Maria, o’po po, se agapo,” bellowed the crowd just behind him. ‘Se agapo’, means I love you, and Sakkari certainly loves them back.

“It’s unbelievable to play in front of this crowd, I love it. It fires you up. It’s unbelievable because we don’t have a tournament back home, so playing here is exactly how we would feel if we were playing in Greece,” she told ausopen.com.

Sakkari is from Sparta and competes with a heart of a Spartan. She was so fired up after her win over Aussie qualifier Astra Sharma, a GIF of her wild celebration instantly went viral. As she threw her wristbands to her fans in the stands, they all started singing the Greek national anthem in response.

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Sakkari says the fans have been "unbelievable" in her first two matches

“It’s a new experience for me as well. I know Stefanos said it’s unusual for him, after his first match, it’s really unusual for me too. The whole situation is unusual for me. Seeing two Greek players in the third round of a Grand Slam is something incredible,” said Greek tennis reporter Vicky Georgatou of SDNA.gr.

The Greek supporters aren’t just loud, they also have a sense of humour. When play was briefly stopped while Troicki was bandaging up a cut on his leg, Tsitsipas stood at the baseline and hit some serves to stay warm. The fans chanted on every serve he hit.  

I was at the ice bath after my match and the chants were still buzzing in my head.
Stefanos Tsitsipas after beating Viktor Troicki on Wednesday

Tsitsipas grew up idolising Baghdatis – along with Roger Federer – and remembers how the crowd reacted to the Cypriot back in 2006 when he made the final in Melbourne.

“I was prepared for that,” said Tsitsipas. “I would say it’s always a big help having a big group of people, knowing they are there for you. It’s definitely different from other tournaments. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, you just feel like people care more.

“They’re very loud, they really want it more than me sometimes,” added the 20-year-old with a laugh.

Tsitsipas dines at Greek restaurants each night in Melbourne and says he likes ‘Stalactites’ – among others – which was a popular destination for Baghdatis in the past.

“I heard they named the souvlaki after Baghdatis’ name, that’s pretty cool,” he says.

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Tsitsipas says the fans give his matches extra meaning

Sakkari, who is into the Australian Open third round for the second time in three years, admits that Melbourne feels like home. She will face her good friend, and home favourite, Ash Barty in the next round which will witness a clash between the ‘Barty Army’ and the Greek fans.

“I hope just a battle with songs and stuff, not like a fight,” laughs Sakkari. “We both have a lot of respect for each other’s game, personality and character, we really like each other. I’m really positive and really looking forward to that match.”

If a restaurant decided to name a Greek dish after Sakkari, does she have a preference?

“Pastitsio. It’s like moussaka but with pasta, that’s one of my favourite dishes back home,” the affable Spartan says with a smile.