More to Come?

Daniil Medvedev was the first player I’d ever seen who would consciously try to play long rallies with Novak Djokovic. Every bit of conventional wisdom in tennis said that was a bad idea. Djokovic had so much solidity off both wings, such reach in his movement, wide variations of spins and length…just about everything in his game made playing a long rally against him a nightmare. Even Rafael Nadal, whose epic points with Djokovic have become famous, was trying to kill off rallies with that big forehand when exchanges got long. But as I watched Medvedev square off with Djokovic in the fourth round of the 2019 Australian Open, the Russian was trying to prolong rallies — to success. Though Medvedev was up against one of the greatest ever on their favorite court, he won the second set in a tiebreak (after almost going down 5-1) and had three break points to go up 3-1 in the third. Even when Djokovic started Djokovic-ing, Medvedev made things difficult for him in the fourth set.

You can see a fair bit of what makes Medvedev special in this clip — there’s the sharply angled crosscourt backhand winner that Djokovic usually has a copyright on, the 35-shot rally Medvedev wins to seal the second set, then the way he jerks Djokovic around the court late in the fourth set with aggressive yet safe shots, finishing with a winner that sends Djokovic crumpling to the ground.

The more I watched of Medvedev, the more I liked. His backhand seemed to miss the court, somehow, even less than Djokovic’s. He could move and stretch like the top defenders in the game, but also had a taller frame and bigger serve. Though this impression has dispelled since due to some of his meek losses, his 2019 win over Djokovic in Cincinnati from a set down, his near-comeback against Nadal in the U.S. Open final that year, and his victory over Dominic Thiem in the 2020 World Tour Finals — all matches in which he fell way behind, switched gameplans, and totally altered the balance of the match — gave him serious chess master credentials. He appeared willing to take insane risks if Plan A didn’t work out, even against the very best: he may have had the worst forehand in the top 10, but often struck the ball with pure confidence, throwing his entire body into his aggressive drives and sometimes going airborne. His volleys looked weird as hell, but he hit enough good ones at the 2020 Tour Finals to suggest he knew what he was doing, competence if not expertise. Here was a player, I thought, who utterly excelled at his strengths and knew how to not just cover his weaknesses, but make them assets at times.

My Medvedev-hype reached its peak at the 2021 Australian Open. I was convinced he was going to beat Djokovic in the final, and not just because Djokovic was carrying a growing ab tear as he suffered through his draw. Medvedev had looked like an absolute menace in his first six matches. Filip Krajinović inexplicably pushed him to a fifth set, but Medvedev countered with a spree of down-the-line winners (again, Djokovic-esque) in the decider, winning it 6-0. In the quarterfinals, Medvedev lured Andrey Rublev into a 43-shot rally, which, even though Rublev actually won the point, gassed him out so badly that Medvedev reeled off the next seven games. In the semifinals, Medvedev beat a weary Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets, hitting an instantly-iconic backhand pass down the line late in the third. He looked unstoppable in each of his awkward yet unerringly consistent groundstrokes.

We all know how the final against Djokovic actually went. I think some forget that it was very close through a set and two games — Djokovic played an exceptional return game to win the first 7-5, then Medvedev was up a break and 30-15 to start the second set — before Djokovic went up a gear and Medvedev lost his mind. I was at a bit of a loss. I had known Djokovic winning was a possibility, of course. He was 8-0 in Australian Open finals and had eviscerated longtime rival Rafael Nadal in the final just two years earlier (another match I would have bet serious money on being epic). But I didn’t anticipate a demolition, and I certainly didn’t anticipate Medvedev self-destructing in the second half of the match. Though I’m not what I would call a Medvedev fan, I do root for him at times — I was a believer that his peak level on hard courts could fell any opposition, and I couldn’t help but want him to prove me right. So the result hurt a little — the player who I thought was that great had the opportunity for an epic win, and he threw it away in the last set and a half.

The match made me call into question what I had seen from Medvedev in 2019 and 2020. Were those awkward-but-effective forehands and volleys an aberration? Did I hallucinate? Even the 2021 U.S. Open didn’t really answer my questions. The charitable — and widespread, I think — view of that tournament is that Medvedev was way better than everyone else and took out Djokovic in the final with a flawless performance. The cynical view is that Medvedev crashed through a soft pre-final draw, then served impeccably (but didn’t have to do much else) against a Djokovic who played his worst match of the tournament, and I have to admit, this seems more the case to me than Option A. The question about Medvedev had become not how good he was at his best but how capable he was of adjusting, and he had never been forced to adjust in that tournament. I didn’t doubt for a second that Medvedev was good enough to win a major, but the tournament didn’t make me feel any better about his ability to overcome mid-match adversity.

To those who disagree, I’d point to the 2022 Australian Open final. There’s no need to rehash the nitty-gritty of that match — suffice it to say that Medvedev had a gigantic lead in a match he was favored to win and ended up losing. Part of that was due to Nadal’s superb rebound from the brink, but Medvedev’s errant drop shots and physical dips were also to blame.

His 2022 only got worse from there. Medvedev had a hernia, then he was banned from Wimbledon along with all the other Russians and Belarusians on tour, then his game didn’t pick up for the summer hard courts like it usually did. The narrative was that other players were starting to figure him out or had already, but I wonder if Medvedev was just playing worse than we had come to expect. Tsitsipas and Rublev put up great performances against him; Medvedev also double faulted 11 times against Tsitsipas in Cincinnati and failed to punish Rublev’s second serve in London. He found himself in a vicious circle of struggling to stay afloat when off his game, but was finding it increasingly difficult to be on his game. In the middle of the Australian Open final, you could have told me Medvedev would win seven majors and I wouldn’t have blinked. By the end of the year, his form looked so shot that many openly questioned if he’d win even one more.

The point of this mini-history of Medvedev’s career is to argue that his peak level (on hard courts, anyway, he’s nowhere close to solving clay or grass) has never been the problem. The issue is that when he’s off and an opponent is on, he really struggles. And while this might not sound like a big deal — of course you’re going to lose when your game is off and your opponent’s is firing! — many a legend has built their legacy on mastering that very scenario. Djokovic’s finest hour is likely the 2012 Australian Open final, the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal, or the 2019 Wimbledon final (Djokovic faced match points in two of these matches and was down a break in the fifth set of the third. You can point to at least one set in all three matches in which he was decidedly not at his best). Or take someone like Andy Roddick, who, like Medvedev so far, won one major in his career: Roddick had to save match point en route to that prized title. As Brad Gilbert reportedly told Andre Agassi per Agassi’s memoir Open, it’s the times that a tennis player wakes up imperfect that define them, not those rare immaculate days.

And Medvedev really has a tough time on imperfect days, especially in difficult conditions. There was the 2021 Australian Open final. There was the 2020 U.S. Open semifinal with Dominic Thiem, where Medvedev served for the second and third sets only to lose in straights. Then a similar loss to Tsitsipas at Roland-Garros in 2021. For all Medvedev looked like a master problem solver in 2019 and 2020, the matches in which he’s radically adapted his gameplan to success have been more mirage than prophecy.

So I tried not to get too excited when Medvedev dominated in Dubai this past week, winning 10 straight sets and beating Djokovic comfortably to break a four-match losing streak against the living legend and scarcely looking bothered along the way. Medvedev was back at his best, a level dizzyingly good enough that Medvedev doesn’t even have to test the boundaries of his comfort zone when it shows up. In Dubai, no one could even win more than four games in a set against him. There was one point in the semifinal against Djokovic, with Medvedev up 3-2 in the second set, where Djokovic tore into an inside-in forehand so violent that he momentarily stopped, thinking he had won the point, when the ball took a vicious skidding bounce through Medvedev’s side of the court. Not only did the ball come back, but Djokovic actually had to retreat due to the depth of Medvedev’s forehand slice defense. The Russian didn’t stop there, countering a Djokovic lob by running back and hitting a good backhand pass, then winning a cat-and-mouse exchange at net. It was a Djokovic-esque way to win a point against the man himself. Despite myself, I could only sit back and let the awe wipe away my previous pessimism about Medvedev’s future.


I don’t think real answers to my Medvedev questions will arrive until the hard court season later in the year. The 27-year-old (take a moment to process that he really is 27, the age that used to be closer to a tennis player’s decline than their peak) hasn’t done too well at the Sunshine Double historically, and he’s unlikely to make a titanic improvement on either of the natural surfaces this season. In a way, the pressure’s off. He doesn’t have a ton of points to defend by his standards. Even if the hard court swing goes poorly again, he won’t lose that many points, his 2022 U.S. Open title defense having ended in the fourth round and his World Tour Finals bid in the group stage.

For now, Dubai was assurance that Medvedev remains breathtaking at his best. There’s just something stifling about his game that I don’t think the ATP has seen since Djokovic. He won 21 straight points against Borna Ćorić in Dubai, and while I think much of that was due to Ćorić going on an error bender (I counted 10 unforced errors for Borna in the 21 points), Medvedev is the only player who could have pulled that streak off. He once won a 6-0 set against Pablo Andújar at the 2020 U.S. Open, losing just five points in the entire stanza. I wasn’t even surprised.

To me, the question surrounding Medvedev is if he can make the most of his gifts and skills, not whether or not he is good enough to win multiple major titles. I still believe there is a path to four or five of them if everything (and I mean everything) goes right for him. Medvedev’s Dubai title, impressive as it was, can’t tell us if he can successfully adjust when the going gets tough. It’s the matches in which his best shots desert him that will be most instructive for charting his future. I’ll be watching keenly the next time his back is pushed to the wall.


Published by Owen

Owen Lewis 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 ( 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.

5 thoughts on “More to Come?

  1. Wonderful, wonderful read Owen. I am glad you are keenly watching Medvedev. Because I always ask myself this question when Medvedev is killing opponents on the court – will he ever become a good enough all surface player? Can he atleast match or win more GS titles than Sir Andy Murray?


    1. Thanks so much, Sanjeet. I often ask myself those questions too — right now, I don’t think so. In the middle of the Australian Open final, I’d have said yes to him winning more than Murray in a second. And I really think Medvedev’s game isn’t *that* terrible for clay — his shaky forehand and flat strokes don’t help, but my god, imagine how hard trying to hit a winner past him would be for anyone not named Marin Čilić. Grass is the better bet for him, I think, since the surface suits his low-bouncing groundstrokes and amplifies his serve. But it’s damn hard to improve on grass with the season being so short every year. Pessimistic view: Medvedev is 27, and with so many seasons under his belt, he’s as good as he’s going to get. Optimistic view: his game is too good for him not to figure out *something* on the natural surfaces eventually. As for Murray, Medvedev can still go past him if he peaks at a few more HC majors, but I don’t have all that much faith in that happening right now, and Alcaraz & co. will provide stiff competition. Sorry for the murky answer, but my thesis is similar to what I wrote in the article — if he peaks, all bets are off, but if he doesn’t, things will be really difficult for him.


  2. Great article! Now, I think Meddy’s not being able to establish the kind of plateau as far as the level of his tennis that, say, all the great ones arguably have is all about his mental state. He is a mystery wrapped in enigma (or whatever that famous Bismark’s saying), even to himself. He is no Pete Sampras or Tommy Paul in terms of keeping his emotions in check. He is aching to get the support of the crowd, but anywhere outside of Russia the reception is luke warm at best – maybe Mexico being an exception. Danya is quite popular in India, but there are no major tournaments played there. The skill set is there, noone would argue that, but tennis is a game, not a heart surgery. Last year AO final took the soul out of him, he had a careerthreateningsoul injury there. Not just the heartbreaking way of loosing it (he lost to Nadal before at the YEC in 2019 being 5:1 up in the final set), but the way he was utterly rejected by the crowd, booed, insulted, laughed about. It was just too much.

    In those three recent weeks he got three titles: the first two were about him getting his resilience back; he won from a set down against ADF and Sinner in Rotterdam, had real trouble with O’Connell and FAA in Doha.
    But in Dubai I saw the old Daniil Medvedev of 2020-2021, his forehand being the clearest indication. And his serve – thank Buddha it’s back!

    You say “he has a tough time on imperfect days” – there are quite a few matches where he was outplayed and still able to win (Hurkacz in Toronto-21, Popyrin in Miami-21, Nadal and Thiem at the YEC-2020 where he had to fight from a set down against two best players at the time). But at the same time his losses to Dimitrov at IW-21 or Monfies at IW-22 are absolutely unexplainable. He is anti-Lendl, anti-Sampras, and it’s totally awesome if you ask me:)

    Meddy’s future is completely uncertain at this point, any predictions would be futile.
    And it’s just fine: as much as people like certainty life in general does not provide it.
    The best possible conclusion would be “Well, we’ll see”.


    1. Thanks, Alexander! Lots of good thoughts here — I remember that Indian Wells match to Dimitrov well, I watched the whole thing and was just baffled by the result. Anti-Sampras is a great way of putting his mentality.

      While he does have an impressive set of matches in which he adjusted successfully and won, I think that subset is getting outweighed more and more by matches like the Dimitrov loss (take the loss to de Minaur in Paris, or the one to Wawrinka in Moselle).

      And you’re likely right about the soul injury from the 2022 Australian Open final. That just seemed like a brutal experience all around. But this three titles in three weeks stretch should go a long way in restoring some confidence.

      Thanks for reading!


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