How must Stefanos Tsitsipas have felt stepping on the Cincinnati hard court against Daniil Medvedev yesterday? They had played seven times before on hard court. Tsitsipas had lost six of them. The last match was in the Australian Open semifinals, a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win for Medvedev that began as high-octane push and pull and ended as a drubbing. Tsitsipas played well for the most part, not losing his serve until late in the second set, but he was never close to the finish line. Worse, the match came directly after Tsitsipas had thrashed Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals, which had been the best match he’d played in the previous few months. Medvedev had been pushed to five sets and nearly five hours by Felix Auger-Aliassime in the previous round, yet still appeared to have more gas in the tank.
It’s hard enough to play someone whose strengths either offset your own or are tailored to pick your weaknesses apart, but pair that with a surface that favors your opponent and the challenge multiplies. Hard court diminishes many of Tsitsipas’ strengths while enhancing Medvedev’s — Tsitsipas, whose return of serve is suspect, struggles for time when returning a huge serve like Medvedev’s on a quicker surface. (Medvedev, meanwhile, can camp out deep and return massive serves successfully on any surface.) While clay allows Tsitsipas the requisite time to take big swings on his backhand or run around to hit inside-out forehands, imbuing the ball with weight and spin, hard court rushes him, sometimes forcing him into subpar slices. Medvedev’s groundstrokes, while they can lack some offensive power, can be hit deep even from way behind the baseline. Medvedev feels at home on a hard court; he’s won the U.S. Open, managed to beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Thiem en route to the 2020 World Tour Finals title, made two Australian Open finals, and won a bucket of Masters 1000s. Tsitsipas struggles considerably more — he’s also won the World Tour Finals, but he lacks a Masters 1000 title and a major final appearance on hard.
Winning this matchup on hard court, then, is incredibly difficult for Tsitsipas. Tactical patterns aside, he knows when he takes the court with Medvedev that he’s playing someone better and more comfortable on cement than him. He knows that his best shots will have to hold up and his worst shots will have to punch above their weight. Tsitsipas also knows that Medvedev can play his regular game and it will still be enough to make him deeply uncomfortable.
All that creates pressure. There are times when a player goes into a matchup and can play with house money — take a wild card against a top seed in an early round — but this isn’t really one of those instances, because any further loss to Medvedev will deepen the hole Tsitsipas is in. With a much older rival, you can outlast them, waiting for their muscles to turn to jelly as you laugh from your twenties. But with someone around your own age (Medvedev is 26, Tsitsipas is 24) or younger, you can’t exactly run out the clock. Federer had to play Nadal 16 times on clay from 2005 to 2019, and he only bagged two wins for his troubles. It’s not that Medvedev doesn’t face any pressure, he’s expected to win this matchup so a loss might well sting more than usual, but the confidence from the history of the rivalry on hard court provides considerable help in that respect.
So, how must Tsitsipas have felt going in? My guess: somewhere between cautiously optimistic and dread-filled, probably closer to the former. He is too good not to have opportunities in every match he plays, such is the strength of his serve, forehand, and movement. But in a Medvedev match on hard court the opportunities are minute. A random miss at love-15 might be fatal. Break points simply have to be converted. The margin of error shrinks to zero, which magnifies the pressure whenever a decisive moment does come up. Every miss, every short return, every mediocre second serve could prove crippling.
Yet Tsitsipas managed the challenge with aplomb yesterday, claiming a potentially pivotal 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-3 win to advance to the final of the Western & Southern Open. He served and volleyed well throughout the first set. This can be a phenomenal tactic against someone with a deep return position — when your touch is on song, you get to stand at net and laugh as the opponent fruitlessly tries to run fast enough from way behind the baseline to get to your drop volleys. There’s a low margin for error, though, with the movement masters of the modern game being quick enough to claw back a volley that hangs up for even a second too long. And serving at 5-3 in the tiebreak, Tsitsipas hit a forehand volley with just a bit too much air under it, allowing Medvedev to whip a backhand past him.
When Medvedev held his two service points to go up 6-5, I thought the 5-3 point would prove decisive. The pattern was similar to the first set of their previous match in Australia, where Tsitsipas had a 5-4 lead in the first-set tiebreak, but Medvedev grabbed the next two points for 6-5, then Tsitsipas missed a forehand by an inch on set point. Here, though, Tsitsipas nailed a big serve to level at 6-all. At 7-6, he played some great early defense in a tough rally, forcing Medvedev into a tricky short forehand at net that the world number one slammed into the net.
There was more adversity to overcome — Medvedev took the second set, holding from love-40 to win it 6-3 after Tsitsipas had mounted a comeback from 5-0 down. Early in the third, he hit a forehand-down-the-line passing shot off a Tsitsipas volley that was practically scraping the ground. It was the definition of a highlight reel shot in a week full of them. Unbothered, Tsitsipas held serve comfortably that game. At 3-2 (and on Medvedev’s serve), he won the best rally of the match, an extended point that was right in his opponent’s comfort zone, managing to outlast Medvedev’s smothering squidlike defense. When it came time to serve for the match, Tsitsipas didn’t blink, firing unreturnable serves and flicking forehands past the world number one. He reeled off four straight points to win that final game.
This is a milestone win for Tsitsipas: his first win over Medvedev on hard court since 2019, his first win in a Masters 1000 semifinal on hard court since 2018. It couldn’t have come at a better time. By all reasonable standards, Tsitsipas has had a great year: Australian Open semifinalist, Monte-Carlo champion, #2 in the race. But it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s been underachieving a bit, especially compared to last year. Even some of the matches he’s won have been mildly concerning, like the needlessly extended struggles against Schwartzman in Monte-Carlo and Dimitrov in Rome. He made the final at Roland-Garros last year and lost in the fourth round this year. He hasn’t had a terrible year, not by any means, but considering all his skill, he’s had a mediocre one.
This match changes all that. It’s dangerous to read too far into any individual win — and there’s a persuasive argument that Medvedev won’t serve nearly as badly as he did next time these two play on hard; he made 49% of his first serves and double faulted 11 times. But this is the first time in 2022 that Tsitsipas has won a match few expected him to beforehand. His commitment to the serve-and-volley tactic was fantastic. His return of serve more than held up — he won more return points than Medvedev, 40 to 30. (In Australia, Medvedev won this battle 41-18.) He was cool under pressure, and it’s hard to overstate how impressive that is in an unfavorable matchup. Since Roland-Garros last year, Tsitsipas has been searching for a win that broke new ground, that restored his momentum. This could be it.