Moody Medvedev is slowly winning me over

Moody Medvedev is slowly winning me over

Morning everyone. What a busy weekend of sport that was. At one point on Sunday morning I was double dosing with tennis on the TV and snooker on the computer. Meanwhile, I was frantically checking my phone for updates on the Autumn Nations Cup rugby. I also watched the Leeds vs Arsenal game at Elland Road but the less said about that – and Nicolas Pepe – the better.

Amid the amalgamation of sporting stories to choose from this morning, Daniil Medvedev stands out for me. The Russian’s victory over Dominic Thiem at the ATP Finals was so impressive. Indeed, combined with his victory over Nadal in the semifinals, wins over Novak Djokovic, Sascha Zverev and Diego Schwartzman in the group stage, and his victory at the Paris Masters a fortnight ago, this caps a simply stunning end to the 2020 season for Medvedev. For a glut of reasons, the 24-year-old has never been a fan’s favourite during his career so far, but I think it’s fair to say he is slowly turning that tide with the quality of his performances and refreshingly nonchalant on-court demeanor.

Last summer, when Medvedev announced himself as a top-10 player with that incredible run on the US hard courts, I was not particularly enjoying his success at first. He is an unorthodox and confusing player to watch. His backhand is accurate but not particularly powerful. His serve is as good as you would expect for someone who is almost 2 metres tall, but not more than that. His volleying is awkward and streaky. And his forehand is one of the strangest tennis strokes I’ve seen since Fabrice Santoro decided that a double-handed slice was the way to go.

As he racked up the wins, however, I gradually started to respect and eventually enjoy his style of play. In a stellar August, final appearances in Washington and Canada were backed up by his first Masters 1000 in Cincinnati. He then reached the US Open final, almost achieving the impossible task of coming back from two sets down against Nadal, before further titles at home in St Petersburg and Shanghai cemented his star quality. Tennis, like any other sport, needs variety to remain interesting, and it was great to see someone other than Rafa, Roger and Novak consistently challenging at the top.

At his best, Medvedev poses a string of seemingly insurmountable challenges for opponents. On serve, he rattles through games at lightening pace, varying his ball toss all over the shop to bamboozle returners. In rallies, he simply refuses to miss. He is not blessed with a huge weapon like Thiem’s power or Nadal’s forehand, but his movement, accuracy and consistency off both wings make him impossibly hard to break down. Thus it feels like the pressure is always on his opponent to either execute a brilliant winner or somehow find a way to consistently return his bruising serve. It’s a deadly combination that few can counter.

The Russian’s unorthodox style is reflected in his general on-court attitude. While Nadal and Federer practice unerring positivity and Djokovic berates himself to improve performance, Medvedev flits between the whole spectrum of emotions throughout the course of a match, smashing a racquet here and bellowing a “Come On!” there. When he won the title yesterday – comfortably the biggest day in his tennis career to date – he simply tossed away his spare ball and ambled up to the net to shake Thiem’s racquet. No tears, no falling to his knees, no looks of disbelief aimed at his corner.

His nonchalance has not always gone down well with supporters, most notably at last year’s US Open when he became the tournament’s pantomime villain. Tennis obviously matters to him – the success he has had would not be possible if it didn’t – but I quite like that fact that he doesn’t go over the top about something which, at the end of the day, is just a game.

So how far can he go? Well, I think as far as he wants. He has got everything needed to win the sport’s biggest titles across all surfaces, and at 24 he still has age very much on his side. I expect him to keep improving and keep winning.

Finally on this, a word on Thiem. The powerful Austrian will be disappointed this morning. At 3-3 in the second set, he pushed long a very makeable forehand pass that would have given him a crucial and potentially match-winning break. He might also rue the decision to slice so many of his backhands. I understand the tactic – Medvedev hits an extremely flat ball and so should in theory struggle will low-lying slices – but it was the wrong play. Thiem’s great strength is his power and he would have surely had more success hitting over the ball to put his opponent on the back foot more often. By slicing so frequently, he allowed Medvedev to step in and dictate the majority of rallies.

But despite this loss, Thiem has had a wonderful season. Back in January I wrote a piece suggesting that the Austrian is the most likely candidate to break-up the Big Three’s dominance, and he has certainly lived up to the hype this year. He took Djokovic all the way in five engrossing sets in the Australian Open final. He then won the US Open and backed that up with with a strong end to the season by reaching the final in London (beating both Nadal and Djokovic on the way). The 27-year-old is getting better every year and the way he is able to produce his best tennis under pressure – most notably at 4-0 down in the final set tiebreak against Novak – suggests that he has got the consistency it takes to reach the very top. He looks, more than any other player right now, a future world number 1 in waiting.

Right, that’s about that for today. Later in the week – I’m not quite sure when – I’ll be doing a round-up of the truncated 2020 tennis season with a special focus on five standout players. So stay tuned for that. Until then, stay safe everyone and have a great Monday.

—What did you think of Medvedev’s win? Let me know in the comments below!—