Title or Bust

Never mind that it’s been eons since an ATP player won a second major immediately after their first, I’m growing increasingly convinced that anything less than a title at the Australian Open for Daniil Medvedev will be a huge disappointment. Andy Murray was the last one who had a shot at the instant major two-peat at the 2013 Australian Open, but a four-hour semifinal with Roger Federer ensured the depletion of his legs midway through a slog of a final with Novak Djokovic, and Murray fell two sets short. Several things are different now, however, not least that the Big Three is now a Big One in the form of Djokovic.

It’s a daunting task, but Medvedev just seems ready. At 25, he is the recent U.S. Open champion, a former World Tour Finals champion, and he owns four Masters 1000 titles on hard court. He has experienced enough varied disappointment — a brutally close loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2019 final of the same tournament, a drubbing at the hands of Novak Djokovic in the final of this year’s Australian Open — to teach him the ins and outs of tennis’s tendency to serve up devastating losses and opportunities to choke. Medvedev is fit; he serves and returns well; he has the reach of a servebot but moves like a grinder. When his first serves are painting the lines and he’s in full roadrunner mode, the combination feels almost unfair. Most of his shots are unbelievably solid. And he usually hits the ones that aren’t (his forehand and volleys) with enough conviction to convince us that they actually are unbelievably solid.

Medvedev also seems to grasp something about tennis that many players seem reluctant to act on, even if they believe it: that as long as you win the last point, there are parts of a match when you can do whatever the hell you want. It’s a decidedly displeasing mindset to watch as a fan, but a very effective weapon to have as a player. Djokovic let plenty of first sets go this year, and look how his season turned out. Against Jannik Sinner in the World Tour Finals, Medvedev put on an exhibition, or something, of how to win while seeming not to care.

Sinner was playing at home. After getting bageled in the first set, the young Italian got his teeth into the match. For an hour or so, he kept his head down while he tried to crack Medvedev’s brick-wall defense, celebrating his successes and shaking off the disappointments. Finally, Sinner won a tight tiebreak in the second set. He screamed in triumph, turning in a half-circle to observe the reactions of the ecstatic crowd. It was obvious that simply winning one set meant the world to Sinner. As the players crossed paths to return to their chairs for the break between sets, Medvedev yawned.

He yawned! In the middle of what had become a thrilling match against another top-ten player. Now, you might think that Medvedev yawned to make light of the situation, to ensure he made it back on Tennis TV, bro. I have a different theory. I think he yawned because he genuinely didn’t give a shit that he lost the set, and he wasn’t too fussed about everyone being aware of his indifference. Medvedev, unlike Sinner, had already qualified for the semifinals of the tournament. He knew that the matchup was heavily tilted in his favor, and that letting an inconsequential match go wouldn’t come back to bite him. Winning would feel nice, sure — he doesn’t like to lose, as he said after the match — but he also described his struggle to care about a “dead match.”

Medvedev also detailed his displeasure at getting dragged into a two-and-a-half hour dogfight, but raised the valid point that he didn’t have to be out there at all. “I could have retired,” he said, “basically say before the match that I have a headache, just not go out there, still be the first in the group.” Again, this economical mindset is not sexy, but is no less legitimate for the desire to save energy.

Towards the end of the final set of the match against Sinner, Medvedev looked completely unhinged; his typical patient rallying having descended into ball-bashing insanity. Yet somewhere within the sinews of his fat-free frame, he found something resembling the ideal balance between good shot selection and not giving a shit and saved a couple match points with risky shots before taking the deciding tiebreak 10-8. On the ultimate match point, Medvedev initially reverted to being patient — he got in a few deep groundstrokes, giving Sinner a chance to miss. When Sinner didn’t, Medvedev unexpectedly leaned into a backhand, launching it down the line for a winner. He smiled briefly on the way up to the net. That was fun, wasn’t it? Sinner looked at the ground, likely shell-shocked. That maniac beat me, playing like that?

Medvedev not only didn’t collapse into a pile of mangled tendons and broken bones moments later, he stood tall and waved his arms octopus-style at a thrilled crowd on Rod Laver Arena, celebrating a spectacular backhand pass that set him up to serve for a semifinal victory against Tsitsipas. At the end of the year, Iga Świątek would dub Medvedev “the pretzel.”

Medvedev knows that not every point matters like some players seem to believe, and he plays as such. He doesn’t even care about looking pretty while winning the points he does care about. Think of a student strategically failing assignments, only to ace enough tests to scrape through a class with a passing grade. A teacher might feel disrespected, but they wouldn’t be able to argue with the results. Most of the time, Medvedev can win with his B, C, or D game. He can pass tests without studying. When his A game does show up in a match where he’s the clear favorite, things can get ugly for his opponents.

This isn’t to say that Medvedev is perfect. Weaknesses on his forehand side can be exposed under certain circumstances. If an opponent turns the tables on him, digging every ball out of the corners, he can struggle offensively. Sometimes he blanks out on an important question and can’t steady himself in time to think of an adequate answer. In the final of the 2021 Paris Masters against Djokovic, Medvedev’s game went haywire in the third set — his typically flat backhand started to loop bizarrely, he missed first serve after first serve — turning a close final into a drubbing.

The rivalry with Djokovic has served as the barometer for Medvedev’s ascension on hard courts. At the 2019 Australian Open, the world number one took out Medvedev in four sets, but the Russian’s willingness to engage in attritional rallies made tennis fans all over the world take note of his unorthodox game. At Cincinnati later that year, Medvedev nearly went down a set and a break against Djokovic before deciding to start going for aces on second serves. A slew of them landed in, and after an hour a stunned and impressed Djokovic was waiting at net to shake hands to mark the 6-3, 3-6, 3-6 defeat.

In 2020, Medvedev fell to Djokovic 1-6, 7-5, 4-6 at the ATP Cup, but Djokovic had been forced to play at his best for virtually the entire match. In the last game, the great Serb went up 30-love, but Medvedev refused to fold, forced Djokovic into a grinding duel of long rallies and hot shots, and the legend escaped only after saving three break points.

For my money, this was the best tennis match of 2020. This whole video is worth watching, but the true madness begins at around four and a half minutes in.

And in 2021, after getting thrashed by Djokovic in the Australian Open final, Medvedev responded in kind at the U.S. Open, putting on a serving clinic. His loss in Paris, though surely disappointing, was a testament to how far Medvedev had come. Djokovic won, yes, but he was so clearly outmatched from the back of the court that he turned to serve-and-volley for sanctuary. It worked, but read that again — Djokovic, possibly the best baseliner in history, ditched his comfort zone regularly in favor of the net, which has historically been far more unkind to the Serb. At the least, Djokovic had to step way out of his comfort zone to escape.

Medvedev has leapfrogged everyone except for Djokovic. Let’s set aside the fact that the best male player to pick up a racket may not play the Australian Open for a second. Presumably, these two will mow down everyone in their paths (barring an unlikely intrusion by Zverev, who is on the rise but lacks the big match experience of both guys and is at least as prone to mental disarray as Medvedev) and meet in the final for a second straight year. Medvedev knows practically all there is to know by now. He’s been in three major finals. He’s played Djokovic ten times, twice on Rod Laver Arena. He knows he can outlast Djokovic from the baseline. If he can nail enough passing shots, victory seems not only possible, but likely. Djokovic may well still beat him if they play — he’s 27-1 at the last four majors and has won the last three Australian Opens — but Medvedev will probably still feel that he should win.

Medvedev just went down to Ugo Humbert at the ATP Cup in a weird match that he was twice two points away from winning. He struggled in the heat and with most of his shots at one point or another. Considering that this was his first match of the season and the increased margin for error in best-of-five, the effects on Medvedev’s Australian Open prospects should be minimal. Even when cramping or fatigued, the Russian can often find a way to play effectively.

Daniil Medvedev may not give his all on every point, but he’s stumbled, sprinted, and squirmed his way to a ruthlessly effective game anyway. It’s title or bust for the world number two at the Australian Open, and if he can corral that enigmatic head of his into a disciplined state for two weeks, it may well be title.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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