Back in 2018, the 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas made a debut at the ATP 500 event in Dubai, defeating Mikhail Kukushkin and Philipp Kohlschreiber en route to the quarter-final where he lost to Malek Jaziri in three sets.
A lot had changed in the next 12 months, with the young Greek returning to the desert as world no. 11 and with two ATP titles by his name. After a challenging opening-round win over Matthew Ebden, Stefanos lost only four games against Egor Gerasimov before another stern test versus Hubert Hurkacz who stayed neck and neck until the decider where the Greek to charge to reach the semi-final.
There, he had to work even harder against Gael Monfils, prevailing 4-6, 7-6, 7-6 in just under three hours after being two points away from the defeat to set the title clash against Roger Federer. The more experienced player and multiple Dubai champion in the past 16 years had the upper hand in that one, beating Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-4 in 70 minutes to claim the milestone ATP title number 100!
It was the eighth Dubai crown for Roger who became the second player in the Open era with 100 ATP titles after Jimmy Connors, earning his 33rd ATP crown after turning 30 and returning into the top-5 on Monday, spending a few weeks away from that group following an early Australian Open exit to Tsitsipas himself.
The Greek made a top-10 debut with those points, although he stood no chance in the quest for the title, losing serve once in each set and not being able to create more damage on the return, squandering both break chances in the tenth game of the opening set.
Federer was super aggressive, taking the ball early and keeping the exchanges on his racquet with 24 winners and 15 unforced errors while Stefanos stood on an 18-20 ratio. We saw eight good holds from the young Greek but that wasn't enough for a more favorable result, losing the crucial points and missing the opportunity to win back-to-back titles after Marseille and celebrate the top-10 debut with the prestigious trophy in his hands.
Determined to win that 100th ATP title, Roger was off to a strong start, breaking Stefanos at 15 in the very first game when the youngster sprayed a forehand error, settling into a nice rhythm after that and marching through his service games until 5-4 when he served for the set.
Out of sudden, Stefanos found the zone on the return and created those two break chances that could have shifted the course of the match towards his side at least for a couple of minutes. Federer stayed focused, though, fending off both break points and securing the opener following a forehand error from Tsitsipas.
Nothing could separate them in the first eight games of the second set as well, with some solid hitting on both sides before Tsitsipas netted an easy forehand (that shot let him down completely) to send Federer 5-4 up, allowing the opponent to serve for the title.
Three winners pushed the Swiss 40-0 up in that tenth game, sealing the deal when Stefanos netted a forehand and starting a massive celebration of what has been one of the most significant titles of his glorious career so far.
This February, Tsitsipas returned to Dubai as the well-established top-10 star and the ATP Finals winner, hoping to go one step further and join the list of champions in the desert. The Greek needed a tie break in the opening set against Pablo Carreno Busta and Alexander Bublik, taking both and gathering momentum to seal both encounters in straight sets for the place in the last eight.
There he had to work hard against Jan-Lennard Struff, finding his game from set number two and dominating against Daniel Evans in the semis as well to return in to the final, becoming the seventh player with two consecutive title matches in the desert.
Roger Federer didn't stand across the net this time around but another legend Novak Djokovic was there to replace him, beating the Greek 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 17 minutes for the first Dubai crown since 2013. It was the third victory for the Serb over the Greek in five encounters, securing the 21st straight triumph since the end of 2019 and the 79th title overall, the second of the season after the Australian Open.
Novak got broken only once and scored three breaks from as many chances, dominating on the rival's second serve to bring the victory home in straight sets, motivated to go all the way just a day after fending off those three match points against Monfils in the semis.
Novak forced an error from Stefanos in the first point of the match, missing a smash but securing the game after a deuce following a forehand error from the Greek. The youngster fired three winners in the second game to get his name on the scoreboard and launch a strong start, always a critical factor in the matches against the rivals from the top.
Djokovic closed the third game thanks to a forehand error from Stefanos who locked the next one with a forehand winner and an ace down the T line, leveling the score at 2-2 and looking good so far. The fifth game saw another deuce on Novak's serve after a forehand mistake, spraying another one to offer the first break chance to Tsitsipas, repelling it with a well-constructed attack to keep the serve intact.
Taming his shots nicely, the last year's finalist grabbed the sixth game after a service winner and the one from the backhand, passing the first part of the set without any troubles and hoping for more of the same in the remaining games.
Djokovic secured the seventh game with a service winner and created the first break chance a couple of minutes later when Tsitsipas sent a backhand wide, passing the rival with a brilliant backhand crosscourt winner to seize the break and move 5-3 in front.
Serving for the set, world no. 1 landed a backhand winner to secure the opener in 39 minutes and moving closer to the fifth Dubai crown. From 30-0 down, Stefanos grabbed four straight points to close the first game of the second set with a service winner and avoid an early setback, delivered another good hold in game three to stay on the level terms with the better-ranked opponent.
That all changed in game five when Djokovic hit a smash winner to open a 3-2 lead with a break at 15, only to drop serve in the very next game when Stefanos placed a perfect drop shot and converted the first break point to remain on the positive side of the scoreboard.
The Greek held at 30 with a service winner to go back in front, leading 4-3 and gaining a considerable boost ahead of the upcoming games. Staying calm, Djokovic held at love to send the pressure to the other side of the court, stealing Stefanos' serve at 15 to forge a 5-4 advantage and serve for the title in the next game.
Novak held at love with a backhand down the line winner to seal the deal in style, celebrating the title in the desert for the first time in seven years and leaving Stefanos empty-handed for the second straight year.