“Everybody is talking about needing new guys, so I gave them something new. I don’t celebrate my wins. I just stay calm, I do my job, and bam! Done.”
That was Daniil Medvedev’s explanation for why he reacts so stoically after winning any match. His 6-4, 6-1 win over Alexander Zverev in the Shanghai Masters final gave him a second consecutive Masters title, took him past Roger Federer in the race to end the year as No 3 in the rankings, and established him as the leader of the new generation of players knocking on the door of the Big 3’s hegemony. And yet, he celebrated this monumental achievement as though he had only completed a lap of the neighborhood running track.
Yes, this is something new for the tennis world. In the ‘express yourself’ age of exaggerated fist-pumps and uncontrollable weeping, Medvedev’s emotionlessness seems like the product of a torturous training regimen hatched in some dark dungeon of Russia. It’s not hard to imagine him being suspended from the ceiling with chains running through his ankles and sweat dripping down his face, until he stopped wincing in pain — or showing any emotion at all.
But Medvedev says he doesn’t show emotion just so that the fans have something new to experience, and we should take his word for it. What is more important, however, is what he is doing on the court before winning his matches: giving his opponents something new at every corner.
Going into the Shanghai final, Medvedev had a 0-4 head-to-head record against Zverev. In fact, he had only ever taken one set off the German; in three out of four matches, Zverev had cantered to easy wins without even being taken to a tiebreaker. The lead-up to Sunday’s final was filled with talk of Zverev being a bad matchup for Medvedev, and how the Russian’s steady style wasn’t suited to breaking down his younger opponent’s game.
But those theories didn’t take into account the fact that Medvedev isn’t just a steady player anymore. In fact, he is barely the same player that Zverev faced in 2017 and 2018.
The first few games of the match were cagey, with the two men exchanging breaks and looking like they didn’t want to take any risks whatsoever. A year ago, the match would have probably continued in the same vein till the end, with the ball being ‘pushed’ rather than ‘hit’ until one of the players could push no more. Neither Zverev nor Medvedev is a stranger to attritional tennis; they’ve both carved out their fair share of wins by merely sending the ball back and waiting for errors from the opponent.
But the new avatar of Medvedev was having none of it. Recognizing that Zverev was either unable or unwilling to impose his game on the proceedings, Medvedev decided to take matters in his own hands. By the middle of the set he started opening up his shoulders and going for his shots, and very soon he was hitting big forehand winners past an unprepared Zverev. A down-the-line screamer at 3-3 was especially emblematic of his intentions, and two more followed in the next two games. The emotionless assassin was on the prowl.
But his newfound attacking prowess notwithstanding, what makes Medvedev particularly difficult to face is his ability to switch between different modes. He was assertive enough to take the initiative and build a 5-4 lead, but also patient enough to let Zverev self-destruct out of scoreboard pressure.
With the 22-year-old serving in that crucial 10th game of the first set, Medvedev lay down a marker early on by going back to his steady rallying and forcing Zverev to generate his own pace. The strain of doing something he is not comfortable with eventually took its toll; Zverev coughed up two double faults from 30-30, and the set was gone.
There wasn’t much of a contest in the second set. While Zverev was still trying to figure out what went wrong at the end of the first, Medvedev was racing away to a 5-0 lead and threatening to end the match with an emphatic bagel. The German managed to stave off the humiliation with a hold, but the writing had been on the wall for a long time. Medvedev served out the match with very little trouble.
That last bit is also something new. At 6’6” Medvedev is as tall as Zverev, but in the past he rarely used his serve like a huge weapon. He could crank up the pace on his first serve when he wanted to, but he often chose to roll the ball in instead of going for the flat missile. Well, not anymore.
Over the last four months or so Medvedev has used his serve to great effect. In the semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas he saved the only break points of the first set with three big first serves, and against Zverev in the final he regularly went into the ascendancy by casually throwing down a bomb out wide and following it up with a clean groundstroke into the open court.
In other words, he played like how a 6’6” player is supposed to play — unlike the pre-2019 Medvedev.
His superiority over Zverev was also reinforced in the second serve stats. Medvedev served, on average, a full 10 kph faster than the German on the second serve. The one area where Zverev would’ve thought he was guaranteed to have the upper hand over Medvedev, just turned into another area where he was well behind.
“He’s a different player now. You can’t compare,” Zverev said after the match, when asked how he had lost so badly to a man he had comfortably beaten in all four of their previous meetings. “Daniil is somebody that plays a way that we have never seen before. He plays very flat. He plays with shots you can’t really do anything with the ball, I feel like, and that is difficult to play against him in an aggressive way.
“Maybe he doesn’t do huge winners or jumping forehands or anything like that, but he plays a style that we have never seen before,” Zverev added.
Medvedev echoed Zverev’s reasoning about how he had managed to turn the tables on his bogey opponent, but in a little more straightforward fashion. “I think I just became a better player than I was when I played him four times before,” he said simply.
There’s no denying that Medvedev is a better player than he was in their previous four meetings. Heck, there’s no denying that Medvedev is a better player than he was four months ago. Until Wimbledon he was just another middle-tier player who frustrated the top guys with his consistency but didn’t seem cut out to win the big titles. Now he is a world-beater who can serve bombs, hit imperious winners, defend like a wall and outlast everyone. In short, he is someone can do a bit of everything.
We’ve got a new player on our hands in 2019, haven’t we?
Updated Date: Oct 14, 2019 11:44:54 IST