Medvedev: Djokovic 2.0?

Medvedev: Djokovic 2.0?

Afternoon all, and welcome to Friday.

Given that I live in Mexico, I have been unable to watch many of the headline night matches at the Australian Open this year. They start at around 3am here, and despite my unabridged passion for tennis, I am not going to get up at 3am on a Wednesday morning to watch a five-set tennis match before heading straight into a 10-hour work day. I love the game, but I also love sleeping, and I am not prepared to sacrifice one for the other.

As a result, I’ve missed much of the biggest matches so far. I missed Stefanos Tsitsipas’ incredible comeback win over Rafa Nadal in the quarters. I slept through the entirety of Aslan Karatsev’s fairytale run to the semis. I was blissfully unconscious while Novak Djokovic was fighting through injury to beat Taylor Fritz in five third-round sets.

One match I did get to watch, however, was Daniil Medvedev’s dramatic win over Filip Krajinovic in the third round. It was a bizarre encounter. Medvedev dominated Krajinovic in the first two sets and was seemingly cruising towards his third successive straight-sets victory. Things, as they are want to do in tennis, then suddenly changed out of nowhere. Medvedev had a lapse in concentration and his Serbian opponent, remembering that he is a very good player himself, capitalized to take the next two sets with minimal fuss and set up an intriguing decider.

By this time, the tempestuous Medvedev was already in heated, multilingual discussions with his corner. His coach had stormed out of the stadium. With all the momentum on the other side of the net, things did not look particularly promising for one of the pre-tournament favourites.

Medvedev’s response? He won the final set 6-0 at a canter. Krajinovic’s level dropped ever so slightly and the Russian pounced like a lion on a wounded gazelle. He plundered 14 winners in just 6 games. Before the 28th seed had time to realize what was happening, he was already heading home. It was a mightily impressive and ruthless turnaround from Medvedev, one reminiscent of his opponent in Sunday’s final: Djokovic.

Much has already been made of the similarities between the two. At their best, they are the two most consistent players on tour, coughing up precious few unforced errors and strangling the life out of their opponents. Although they excel on the front foot, both are by nature counterpunchers who are happiest when soaking up pressure from the back of the court. They move incredibly well, particularly from side to side, and routinely find ways of winning points they have no business winning. Their defensive style has been called boring, and maybe it is. But it is also extremely effective.

The thing that has always set Djokovic apart from his peers throughout his career, however, is his uncanny ability to produce his best tennis in the pressure moments. The closer he gets to defeat, the better he plays. It is an ability only true champions have, and it explains why the Serb is so hard to beat. Against Krajinovic, I saw that Medvedev has that asset too. The Russian was seemingly down and out, interested more in fighting with his support team than winning the match. He then flicks a switch and produces lights-out tennis to get over the line.

For that reason – more than any technical quality – I think we might be about to see Medvedev start to become the sport’s dominant player this year. He has shown glimpses of this potential in the recent past. In the summer of 2019, he went of a run of six-straight finals, culminating in an epic five-set defeat to Nadal at the US Open. And since November, he has put together a string of 20-straight victories, including 12 top-10 wins and title-runs in Paris, London and the ATP Cup. Those sequences are only possible with incredible consistency and drive. They are the hallmark of players who reach the top of the world rankings.

Having just turned 25, Medvedev is also at the right age to reach a new level of performance. Djokovic was 24 when, in 2011, his career suddenly took off with a burst of nine titles (including three Grand Slams) in as many months. Prior to that, he had only reached two major finals, a record Medvedev has matched with his run in Melbourne this week. The Russian has still to prove his elite quality on clay and grass – all of his nine titles to date have come on a hard court – but otherwise all the ingredients are there.

When trying to predict the outcome of a tennis match, and indeed any sporting fixture, there is usually a conflict between my head and my heart. The romantic sports fan in me usually plumps for the underdog. In this case, however, I’m not sure there is such a disparity. My heart wants Medvedev to win, not because of any particular love for the gangly Russian but because I think it would be good for men’s tennis to have different names on the various trophies. Novak has won this thing eight times already – who really cares if he wins a ninth?

The battle is closer in my head, but I still think Medvedev will win. He crushed Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 the last time the two played in London in December. Aside from the Krajinovic blip, he has not lost a set or even had to play a tiebreak in the tournament so far. He looks physically strong and mentally serene. He appears ready to become a Grand Slam champion.

Djokovic, meanwhile, has more question marks hanging over his head. He has dropped five sets en route to the final. He has battled an abdominal injury throughout. At 33, and with a lot of long rallies expected on Sunday, that extra physical exertion could take its toll. He has also not won a tournament since the Rome Masters in September – a relative drought. Having lost three of his last four matches against his final opponent, the Serb’s peerless self-belief might just be creaking slightly.

In any case, it should be a fascinating tussle. One that’s probably worth getting up for.

I’ll leave it there for today. I’ll be sending out the newsletter as usual tomorrow morning, and I’ll be back here with more on Monday. Have a good weekend folks.

—Who are you backing to win the Australian Open this weekend? Let me know in the comments section below!—