Brain Game: Why Daniil Is Russian To Net
It was Russian roulette on a tennis court. The Russian won.
Daniil Medvedev threw caution to the wind and courageously served and volleyed seven times behind his second serve against Dominic Thiem in the final of the Nitto ATP Finals in London Sunday. He won six of them.
Medvedev’s 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 victory was stunning in several ways, with his commitment to come forward in the big moments behind his second serve a driving force behind the biggest win of his career.
Pivotal moments in the match seemed to be constantly unfolding, but none moreso than Medvedev serving at the precarious scoreline of 3-3 30/40 in the second set. He misses his first serve down the T and then hit a heavy, 83mph kick second serve out wide that Thiem was sitting on with a potent run-around forehand return. The Austrian uncorked it at Medvedev’s feet but the Russian somehow managed to get it up and over the net and short in the court. It was pure desperation on both sides of the net.
Thiem raced forward looking to rip another forehand but the ball stayed low and Thiem was forced to slice it with his topspin grip. As is prone to happen, the wrong grip forces the ball wide and Medvedev won the point.
Two points later, Thiem had another break point, and Medvedev reached into his serve and volley bag of tricks once more, this time hitting an ace with his first serve as he sprinted straight to the net. No desperate volley needed this time.
Overall, Medvedev served and volleyed 16 times in the final, winning 13 of them. In the previous game at 2-2 in the second set, Medvedev also trailed 30/40. He served and volleyed behind a first serve on and struck another ace right down the T.
The bigger the moment, the more chance you had of finding the Russian stalking the net.
Another pivotal moment in the match came in the second set tie-break with Thiem serving at 2-3. Medvedev got a look at a 100mph second serve straight to his backhand return where he could step into the shot. He surprised everyone with his only return approach of the match. The bold tactic caught Thiem off guard and his backhand slice passing shot only made it half way up the net. Medvedev won the next three points in quick succession to take the second set.
Overall, Medvedev came to the net a staggering 48 times (including serve & volley), winning an impressive 38 (79%) of them. In set two alone, he won 21 of 27 points (78%). From 3-3, Ad Out in the second set to 2-2, 15-15 in the third set, Medvedev came to the net 16 times and won every single point. Thiem must have felt like he was running away from an avalanche.
Medvedev’s successful serve and volley strategy is right out of the Patrick Rafter playbook. The key is to hit the second serve with copious amounts of topspin that moves slow through the air but explodes off the court to kick up high around the returner’s shoulders. The slower serve is actually an advantage for Medvedev because it gives him more time to get in tight to the net. And when you factor in that Thiem stood way back against second serves - quite often five to six metres behind the baseline - then that provided Medvedev even more time to close in and cut off angles.
This is not Medvedev’s first time to showcase serve and volley on the big stage. He served and volleyed 29 times against Rafael Nadal in the 2019 US Open final, winning a very healthy 76 per cent (22).
Medvedev’s modern game style is a lethal mix of aggressive baseliner and short-ball hunter. It’s a swarming all-court strategy that just collected one of the biggest prizes in our sport.