Building Back

Daniil Medvedev might just have set a record for the most abrupt mid-match retirement in the past several years. Medvedev solidly outplayed Novak Djokovic in the first set of the Astana Open semifinals, but lost a desperately close tiebreak in the second despite playing some dazzling tennis. After a dizzying exchange of drop shots, lobs, and passing shots in the first several points of the tiebreak, Medvedev shanked a forehand long with Djokovic at the net. Almost immediately afterward, he called it quits.

Djokovic said in his post-match interview that Medvedev told him he had pulled an adductor muscle in his leg. It’s a testament to Medvedev that the issue wasn’t apparent at all — late in the tiebreak, he pulled Djokovic to net with drop shots, then ripped crosscourt backhands past him on consecutive points. He made a few octopus-special gets on the opening point of the breaker. He was two points away from winning the match! The good news about the injury not affecting Medvedev’s level of play is that we can still analyze and make conclusions about the match. Hell, had Medvedev not dumped the easiest of forehand volleys into the net at 5-all in the tiebreak, he might well have won despite his physical issue.

But Djokovic wasn’t having it. His mental and physical heroics on a tennis court should be the furthest thing from shocking at this point, but how Djokovic was able to win the second set of this match will likely be debated by mathematicians for a while. Just look at Medvedev’s stats from the semifinal:

How is it possible to have a +15 winners/unforced errors differential, make 75% of first serves, win over 60% of second serve points (against the best returner ever, by the way), win the majority of baseline points, and only win one of two sets? Despite playing most of the match with his back against the wall, Djokovic squeezed out enough crucial points in big moments to edge the second set. There was the epic rally on his serve at 4-all, 30-all in the second set when Djokovic crushed an inside-out backhand and a viciously angled forehand — both shots should have ended the point but Medvedev somehow got them back — and he stayed patient enough to fire an inside-out forehand winner. Medvedev might have biffed that easy volley in the tiebreak, but Djokovic guessed right on a backhand putaway, which forced Medvedev to hit the extra ball. Though Djokovic won the set by the skin of his teeth, he found a way through, as he has done so many times throughout his career. He’s still got it.

Screenshot: Tennis TV

Despite the incredible tennis over the two sets, the match had a sad tinge to it for me, and not just because of the ending. Djokovic and Medvedev have had tough years. The former hasn’t played that much — he barred himself from both hard court majors this year by not getting vaccinated, and has spent a big chunk of the year feeling oddly irrelevant, even as he played some world-class tennis. He might have won Wimbledon, but it wasn’t enough to rescue his season from a productivity standpoint. At the end of last year, he was tied with Nadal on 20 majors and had all the momentum, having won three of the last four while Nadal hadn’t played for the second half of the season. Now, Nadal leads 22-21, with no guarantee how many majors Djokovic will be able to play next season.

Medvedev’s 2022 story might be even more tragic. He entered the Australian Open as the most recent major champion. Djokovic wasn’t in the draw. Medvedev had beaten Nadal the last time they played, and no one else was at his level on a hard court. He beat Felix Auger-Aliassime from two sets down, saving two match points in the fourth set. He beat Stefanos Tsitsipas convincingly in the semis. He even had his foot on Nadal’s neck in the final, what with a 6-2, 7-6 (5) lead and three break points midway through the third set. But Nadal came back to win in five, Medvedev lapsing physically along the way, and he hasn’t been the same since. He spent a few weeks at world #1, the first non-Big-Four man to do so since Andy Roddick in 2004, but the achievement felt almost honorary — Medvedev was, definitionally, the best player in the world, but he wasn’t playing the best tennis in the world. A hernia sidelined him for a few weeks, then he got banned from Wimbledon along with all Russian and Belorussian players. He didn’t win a tournament until August this year. He couldn’t defend his U.S. Open title, losing handily in the fourth round.

So while the points in today’s match were exhilarating, I couldn’t shake the feeling that both Djokovic and Medvedev were trying to prove their relevance at the tail end of a season in which they failed to live up to their potential. Both men have won the Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals before; there’s not much for them to gain before the Australian Open next year. All they could do was try to build back to where they were. And they made a good go of it — the Tennis Podcast said on Twitter that the level of play was worthy of a major final. Their backhand defense out of the corners still makes me gasp, their rally tolerance still makes my legs ache sympathetically. Still, I had a nagging thought that both men were trying to prove something rather than simply playing their games.

Maybe I’m wrong — maybe Djokovic goes into 2023 in cyborg mode and starts chopping up opponents like he’s been doing for the past couple weeks. Maybe Medvedev comes back refreshed and develops better touch at net and becomes even more untouchable on a hard court. Both men are certainly capable of scaling the mountaintop again.

But I fear too much has changed since Djokovic and Medvedev played in the 2021 Paris final for them to recreate that landscape. They shared all four majors that year (three for Djokovic, one for Medvedev); this year, Djokovic won one major and Medvedev didn’t win any. Carlos Alcaraz has won a major and become world number one, and at just 19, he looks set to rule men’s tennis with an iron fist. Nadal has won two majors. In that Paris final, Djokovic and Medvedev played with a lightness at odds with the brutal rallies they were contesting. It was like they were reveling in a shared vision of the next year, in which they split all the big hard court titles and demolished everyone else who dared try to hang in a long point with them. Now that vision is gone, along with another year of each of their careers.

All that said: the stretch in the second set tiebreak was some of the best tennis I had seen all year. Six or seven of the first ten points ended with a winner. Djokovic and Medvedev were playing these utterly manic rallies, feathering drop shots and making gets from impossible positions and extending points to a stage where the rally would have screamed if it knew how, and for just a moment, it felt like no time had passed at all.

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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