February 20, 2021 2:47:18 pm
The last time Daniil Medvedev had reached the final of a Grand Slam, he wasn’t expected to. Sure, the 25-year-old was in good form leading up to the 2019 US Open final – losing just two of his previous 22 matches. And he was the World No 5 at the time. But from the ATP’s fabled NextGen contingent, Medvedev wasn’t the one expected to be the first to reach a Grand Slam final. Nor was he expected to give Rafael Nadal an almighty scare at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, where the tall Russian narrowly lost out in the fifth set.
On Sunday, in the men’s singles final at the Australian Open, at the Rod Laver Arena, Medvedev will enter his second major final. But he is no longer an unexpected challenger to a throne held by the Big 3 – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Nadal. Just by getting to the final, he’s expected to overtake Dominic Thiem’s World No 3 spot. Should he win the final, he can get to the World No 2 spot that has not been achieved by anybody outside the Big 3 and Andy Murray for over a decade.
This time, he’s pipped to be the only one capable of toppling Djokovic’s unbeaten streak in the final at Melbourne – the 33-year-old has never lost any of the eight finals in Australia.
The rise of Medvedev
Since the 2017 season, the ATP has widely advertised the coming of a talented new generation of tennis players. The governing body even organised a new calendar event – the NextGen Finals (a mirror of the prestigious Tour Finals, but for the top players aged 21 and under).
This generation was headlined by the likes of Alexander Zverev (the current World No 7 who went on to win the 2018 senior Tour Finals), Hyeon Chung (who beat Djokovic in the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open), Tsitsipas (the 2019 Tour Finals winner and World No 6, whose flair and graceful one-handed backhand bring back memories of Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, and also Federer). Russia too had a big name in this mix: Karen Khachanov, who beat Djokovic in the 2018 Paris Masters final.
Medvedev, the eldest of the lot (now 25), was never considered among the big names in this realm of upcoming greats. He stands at the same height as Zverev and Khachanov – a menacing 6-foot-6 – but his lanky frame(a surprise since he loves eating ‘sweets’) and slouched shoulders made it unimaginable to see him reach where he has today.
Born in Moscow, the 6-foot-6 Russian has been training in France since he was a teenager. For years he lurked outside the spotlight, finding attention only when he’d controversially throw coins in the direction of a chair umpire (suggesting the official was bribed by the opponent), or when he was disqualified from a Challenger event after he questioned an umpire’s partiality based on her race.
So when he did break into the top 20 for the first time in October 2018, it really wasn’t noticed.
And then in the summer of 2019, after the Wimbledon Championships, he started that unexpected run of 22 matches leading up to the US Open final.
Turns out, it wasn’t that Medvedev didn’t have the talent to make it in the biggest stages of tennis. He was just late to the party.
The unorthodox shots
A fan tweeted a short video of a rally between Medvedev and Zverev during the ATP Cup, a week before the Australian Open. The caption highlighted the little hop the Russian made every time he hit a forehand.
Ordinarily, a coach would tell a student to move the back hip forward after playing a forehand. Medvedev does that too, but he indeed does add a little ‘hop.’
He replied to the tweet saying: “You should see my volleys.”
Medvedev’s playing action is something coaches would arguably not recommend. It’s not textbook. The backswing on his groundstrokes is quick and fluid, but he doesn’t spend much time to load into a shot. The trajectory of the racquet swing too isn’t the smooth down-and-up for topspin. Instead he drives through the shot, playing powerful flat strokes off both wings.
And his powerful serve, he bounces the ball twice (mostly) and then simply tosses the ball up without taking that quick moment to bring the ball to the racquet.
Having said that, the baseliner, despite his skinny frame, packs a powerful punch. The forehands and backhands down the line or cross court are crisp and accurate. He moves incredibly well for someone his height and chases down shots willingly, returning them with unexpected depth, pace and penetration. He plays drop shots, slices, moonballs (lobs when the opponent is at the baseline), to change the pace and disrupt the rhythm, and then hits flat out to kill off a point. And the angles he gets all over the court are inconceivable.
One particular point sticks out from the match against Tsitsipas. Medvedev is stretched wide to his right after the Greek’s serve. Tsitsipas comes up to the net to play the return deep into Medvedev’s backhand. In a flash, the Russian got to the spot and, on the run, played a backhand down the line winner to break serve for the last time in his 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 win.
It was his 20th win on the trot, and the 12th time since November that he had beaten a top 10 opponent. In fact, the only top 10 player he hasn’t beaten in this run is Federer – who is recovering from knee surgery.
“It’s a pity that Roger is not playing,” he said after his match. “I would love to have played him.”
Djokovic’s textbook efficiency
While Medvedev’s style is unorthodox, his opponent on Sunday is textbook perfect.
Djokovic has one of the best backhands in the game. And the defensive baseliner’s strokes have so much accuracy and pace that it can turn defence into attack in a single shot.
He’s also one of the best returners the game has seen, and prefers to use long rallies to break down a dogged opponent – a testimony to Djokovic’s stamina.
His serve, perhaps his weakest shot, has been aided by the fast courts in Melbourne. In his second round match against Frances Tiafoe, Djokovic rained down 26 aces – a new personal best for a single match.
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