Does playing tennis non-stop help you build an armor that insulates you from everything, like it happens in one of those role-playing computer games?
I can recall at least two instances from the last two years where playing for weeks together made a player immune to the pitfalls – fatigue, wear and tear, just the plain old law of averages – that normally afflict players. In 2017 Roger Federer won Indian Wells and seemed to run out of gas mid-way through Miami, before miraculously finding his best tennis in the business end of the tournament. And in 2018, Alexander Zverev was on court for three consecutive weeks in the claycourt season and yet ended the run by producing possibly his best claycourt match of the year, against Rafael Nadal in the Rome final.
You’d think Daniil Medvedev would be a good candidate to replicate something like that, because of his generally even-keeled play and robotic consistency. But after the first set against Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati semifinal, his brilliant three-week march – which started with a final appearance in Washington and continued with another summit clash in Montreal – seemed to have run its course.
Djokovic had taken the first set with something close to his very best tennis, which at the time seemed guaranteed to shut Medvedev out completely. In their previous two matches this year the 23-year-old had had success by taking pace off the ball and forcing Djokovic to play his worst tennis; in Monte Carlo he even managed to win the match as the World No 1 coughed up one error after another. But that clearly wasn’t going to work in Cincinnati.
Medvedev’s second serve was where he was being hurt by Djokovic the most. “He was all over me”, Medvedev said later, and he wasn’t exaggerating. But the Russian still had an ace up his sleeve that none of us thought he did. Mid-way through the second set he started doing the one thing in the world that was guaranteed to push back even the world’s best returner: hitting two first serves on practically every point.
Many players have tried that in the past, often with disastrous results. But not many players are as tall as the 6’6” Medvedev, or as skilled at repetitive patterns as him. Medvedev managed to make it work, and then some; he successfully stopped Djokovic from making mincemeat of his second serve, and at no significant cost. He committed just four double faults all match.
Armed with newfound confidence on his serve, Medvedev hit the fast-forward button on the rest of his game too. By the time the third set started he was the one making the aggressive plays and going after his shots, in a manner that not many of us thought he was capable of. He put away short balls with his forehand, hit flat backhands down the line that surprised Djokovic, and even rushed to the net on occasion.
Medvedev didn’t just beat the Serb with metronomic, error-inducing tennis. He beat Djokovic by outhitting him.
Against David Goffin in the final he was the clear favourite, and he played like it for the most part. Medvedev knew he didn’t have to do anything special to get the win, but he still used remnants of the confidence he had gained from the Djokovic match to get the job done. He was more efficient than usual at finishing points with his forehand, and even though he gave up a 4-1 lead in the first set he looked like the better player throughout.
That was until he stepped up to serve for the match at 5-4 in the second set. Medvedev claimed later that that was when he started cramping – “I’m cramping right now also, a little bit,” he said amid laughs during the presser. Were those miles accumulated from three weeks of continuous play finally going to derail him, at the worst possible moment?
Medvedev quickly went 15-40 down, and Goffin seemed to have sprung to life. The Belgian suddenly had the upper hand in the rallies, and you knew that if he broke serve here we’d probably have a long match on our hands.
For the second time in as many days, there was only one realistic way Medvedev could have stopped the bleeding. And for the second time in as many days, he found that way.
The Russian took the ball in his hand, tossed it up, and hit an unreturnable second serve. He followed that with an ace, this time off the first serve. And then another. And finally, ace number 10 on match point.
From 15-40 down Medvedev won four points in a row with unreturned serves, ruthlessly snuffing out any chance Goffin had of making a comeback. Has anyone won their first Masters 1000 title with as much panache?
The fact that we are even using the word ‘panache’ in relation to Medvedev shows how much he has evolved in the last three weeks. The 23-year-old had been a bit of a black sheep among the Next Gen stars, winning a bunch of mid-level tournaments in unglamorous fashion while the Zverevs and the Tsitsipases hogged the headlines with all their drama. But now Medvedev is a star in his own right, and a top 5 player to boot.
How much higher can the Russian soar? We know that he isn’t just about putting the ball back in play, and that he can crank up his serve and forehand when the situation demands it. The question to be asked now is how easily he can flip that switch in the future; whether he will always find the big serve in time, and the right tactic when he most needs it.
The man himself isn’t getting ahead of himself. “At the US Open I will be satisfied with a quarter-final,” Medvedev said, highlighting the fact that for all his achievements, he still hasn’t reached a Slam quarter-final. But while he may be lagging behind his fellow Next Gen stars at the Slams, he has gone past them in other areas: he has 44 match wins in 2019 (the most on the tour), and is the only one of the group with a Masters 1000 crown this season.
Whatever we may think of Medvedev’s game, the fact is that he has turned into one of the most consistent players in the world. The goal for the rest on the tour should now be to nip that consistency in the bud when they have the chance, because they know how thick his armor can get if he keeps playing non-stop.
Medvedev has ‘leveled up’, in game-speak.
Updated Date: Aug 19, 2019 19:47:08 IST