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Barcelona Open 2019: Against all odds, 'robotic' Daniil Medvedev has turned into a force on clay

It always comes as a bit of a shock when Daniil Medvedev smashes his racquet, or screams in joy or frustration, or in general exhibits any trait that is characteristic of a human being. His tennis can be so consistent, so robotic, that you are often lulled into believing he’s actually a machine in the shape of a man.

How can a machine feel joy at winning a match, or frustrating at missing a shot? It’s as spooky as it is fascinating.

 Barcelona Open 2019: Against all odds, robotic Daniil Medvedev has turned into a force on clay

Russia's Daniil Medvedev in action during Monte Carlo Masters earlier this month. Reuters

What’s also fascinating is Medvedev’s evolution on the one surface that never seemed suited to his game: clay. Before this year, the Russian had won a grand total of two matches on clay in his entire career, and that seemed perfectly appropriate. His flat-hitting style, coupled with his inability to hit past his opponents, suggested that he’d always need a quick surface to make anything out of his unorthodox groundstrokes.

But 2019 has been an eye-opener. Medvedev is not just surviving on clay, he is turning into a lethal force on it.

He reached the Monte Carlo semi-final last week, defeating World No. 1 Novak Djokovic along the way. And this week he is into the Barcelona final, having got past accomplished claycourter Kei Nishikori in the semis.

Medvedev’s one-dimensional, seemingly rudimentary game shouldn’t work on clay, but for some weird reason it does. Is it perhaps not as rudimentary as it looks? Or has it just been a case of facing relatively low-quality opposition?

A look at Medvedev’s list of victims the past couple of weeks should quickly douse that second line of thinking. Apart from Djokovic and Nishikori, he has also defeated Joao Sousa, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nicolas Jarry, all of whom know a thing or two about claycourt tennis. Medvedev has just been better than most of the field, and this run is no fluke.

So how is he doing it then? It’s a combination of a number of factors, each as subtle as the next. For one thing, Medvedev has sneaky good movement on clay. He gets to more balls than any 6’6” player rightly should, which automatically makes him better-placed to extend the rallies and tire out his opponents.

It is the ultimate paradox of height in tennis – longer limbs move slower than shorter ones, but they also cover a greater surface area in the same number of strides. And Medvedev’s long legs are eating up vast amounts of clay right now, making him an extraordinarily pesky opponent to get the ball past.

The Russian’s height also helps him with his serve. Sure, it never looks like he is serving from a tree. For the most part his serve is easy to read, as he just rolls it in or adopts a laughably wide position (in the deuce court). But he can also crank up the pace on his first delivery when he really needs to; on some of the big points against Nishikori on Saturday, his serve speed was close to 140 mph.

Moreover, the acute angles he can generate when serving from that height will always pose problems no matter what the surface. A shot that pulls your opponent out of the court is a shot that gives you an advantage in any point, anywhere in the world.

Another aspect of Medvedev’s game that is easy to escape appreciation is how he hits so many shots to the same spot despite using very little topspin. The most obvious objective of hitting with topspin is to maintain consistency; the revolutions imparted on the ball allow you to hit hard and deep and still land it in the court. But Medvedev hits consistently deep without the aid of exaggerated spin, which suggests that his hand skills are a notch higher than the rank-and-file players.

Watch any match of Medvedev’s closely, and you’ll see how he caresses and maneuvers the ball to do his bidding even when he is on the dead run. His passing shots are accurate and expertly angled, and his defense off the backhand side is remarkable despite never threatening to be spectacular.

On clay Medvedev has another height-related advantage: he is almost never out of position. His tall frame makes it difficult to push him too far back with high-bouncing balls; a topspin-heavy shot usually ends up being right in his hitting zone. If anything, clay actually helps him with his striking stance as it doesn’t require him to bend low as often as he has to on other surfaces – thus nullifying the most commonly exploited tactic against tall players.

All things considered, maybe Medvedev’s success on clay shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. He is, in effect, adding his own touches to the template set by his fellow 6’6” youngsters – Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov – and showing that tall players can be dangerous not just with their power, but also with their movement. Fleet-footed giants may well be on their way to establishing a stranglehold over the sport, because there is no aspect of the game that they haven’t got covered.

But we also have to ask ourselves the next obvious question: when Medvedev has so many inherent plusses in his game, why did he falter so often on clay before 2019?

The answer to this is a lot simpler: the backhand. We’ve always known Medvedev has a solid backhand, but we’ve never known him to take charge of points with it the way he’s been doing the last couple of weeks. He is now hitting his backhand down the line more often and with great disguise too, regularly wrong-footing his opponents into errors. On occasion he’s even been running around his forehand to hit a backhand, thus masking perhaps the biggest weakness in his game: the lack of point-ending power on his forehand.

That weakness will likely come to the fore again in the final against Dominic Thiem, who showed in his defeat of Rafael Nadal yesterday that he can track down just about anything. Medvedev tends to struggle while finishing points, and against a player as quick as Thiem that is bound to hurt him.

But this is just the first year of Russian’s elevation to the claycourt elite, and it’s okay if he doesn’t sweep everything in sight. The fact that he’s made deep inroads into the two biggest claycourt tournaments of the year so far is enough for now. It is proof of his adaptability to the surface, and possibly a sign of bigger things to come in the future. This year he has ramped up his backhand, maybe next year it will be the forehand.

While Medvedev is on this journey of improvement, maybe we should learn to be less shocked whenever he shows signs of emotion on the court. He is continuously evolving after all, and isn’t evolution the one thing that separates humans from machines?

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2019 12:09:40 IST