By Owais Majid
As journalists packed into Daniil Medvedev’s press conference after he suffered a heartbreaking loss at the hands of Rafael Nadal, they would probably have prepared questions to the effect of “What went wrong today?”, “What positives can you take from the match?” and other familiar inquiries that ostensibly follow a grand slam final loss. This was largely made redundant by what followed after the first question that was posed to Medvedev.
Medvedev responded to a fairly standard question about how he and his coach analysed the match, by politely disregarding it before launching into a 4 minute monologue which contained the poignant words “Today that kid stopped dreaming.” But Medvedev wasn’t referring to his grand slam dream; he’s already won one of those. He wasn’t referring to his Australian Open dream; as Nadal himself remarked afterwards, he will almost certainly win multiple Australian Opens in his career. In fact, Medvedev made a point of not specifying what the dream was, but it was apparent to all that he was referring to the Australian crowds treatment of him.
It’s fair to say that Medvedev has had his ups and downs with tennis crowds over the years. He has frustrated, amused and endeared himself to the public in equal measure but this tournament felt different. Even aside from the final, Medvedev wasn’t received particularly well.
As was expected, he was the pantomime villain when he faced local boy Nick Kyrgios on the John Kane arena. He was the heavy favourite in every match up until the semifinals so the crowd – again understandably – were rooting for the underdog. When he faced Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinal the crowd was largely against him due to the substantial Greek contingent in Melbourne and on Sunday, almost all of the 11000 in attendance were supporting Nadal.
I’d venture that Medvedev, a pretty self-aware person, would have completely understood all of this. However the packed Rod Laver arena may have overstepped the line on Sunday.
It’s difficult to imagine how dispiriting it must be to receive no reaction when you do something spectacular but to get tumultuous cheers from thousands of fans when you make an error. That’s something the vast majority of us cannot begin to fathom but it was the reality for Medvedev. To compound what must already have been a pretty jarring experience, the climax of the match was arguably even more disappointed than what had come before it. After 5 and a half hours of providing entertainment that nobody is likely to forget for a very long time, the least Medvedev deserved was some appreciation, be it even a mere round of applause. Instead boos once more rang out and it baffles the mind as to why. Although it cannot have been pleasant, he may have been able to compartmentalise the manner in which the crowd acted during the match.
The New York crowd at the 2019 US Open epitomised the perfect villain/fans relationship, and Medvedev would have been hoping for – maybe even expecting – something similar here. During his third round victory over Feliciano Lopez, it felt the like entire stadium turned on Medvedev after he had an unsavoury interaction with a ball boy. That this noise further intensified after the now famous “When you sleep at night, know that I won because of you” speech that Medvedev delivered in such charismatic fashion afterwards. By the end of that tournament however, the crowd had warmed to Medvedev to the point he was given as big a cheer as that which Nadal had received. That crowd recognised the role Medvedev was playing. They embraced him and he embraced them and it made for amazing tennis theatre.
This, for me, was what Medvedev imagined would happen at the end of the battle with Nadal. In Australia though, the appreciation never came and this is what I believe saddened Medvedev deeply. As alluded to earlier, it’s near impossible for you or I to imagine the mental suffering such little adulation after performing such wonders can have. Purely on a human level, wouldn’t it be all of our dreams in some capacity at least, if any of us were good enough to perform our art in front of thousands, to be receive a standing ovation or a tumult of cheers? The distinct lack of this must have been so incredibly heartbreaking for Medvedev that it elicited the speech at the start of his press conference. Throughout the 12 minute English segment, he implicitly referenced how much he enjoyed being noticed, and inversely how much of a negative effect it had on him whenever he wasn’t and Sunday was just the culmination of all of this.
Medvedev made another interesting point during his monologue about how the tennis world changed their tune. Speaking about the next gen, he said “There were talks like people saying we really want the young generation to go for it to be better and stronger and I was like pumped up. Well, I guess these people were lying because every time I stepped onto the court I really didn’t see many people who wanted me to win.” This made me think of another glaring contradiction many of us are guilty of. Large sections of both the media and wider public have bemoaned the lack of colourful characters on the circuit. For all their qualities, the impeccably behaved Federer and Nadal don’t provide the agro, the theatre that sport requires to attract greater audience. Once somebody like Medvedev comes along and provides that in droves, his behaviour is scrutinised to within an inch of his life and he is criticised to no end. By his own admission, some of his actions have been deplorable but Medvedev has on countless occasions acknowledged his flaws and vowed to improve. You’d think that all of the meme-able content he has given us over the years and all of the superb one-liners would result in more appreciation of him but alas, this hasn’t yet transpired.
I sincerely hope that in the cold light of day, when he has had time to reflect, Medvedev’s view will change. Players often make irrational statements immediately after they have just experienced such an emotional rollercoaster of a match. In weeks to come, the despair may no longer be as severe as it is at the moment and we may once more see the Daniil Medvedev we’ve all become accustomed to. Crowds around the world will eventually warm to him, he’s too witty, too smart and too entertaining for them not to. Just as the New York crowd eventually fell in love with him in 2019, there is absolutely no reason why this should not be the case everywhere else. He may be the black sheep at the moment, derailing the familiarity of the big three, but when they are gone and he can step out for their shadow, the sun will shine on the charismatic character the sport needs.
The kid needn’t stop dreaming just yet.