Russian (Un)Orthodox: Medvedev Takes Own Path To No. 2
The picture that stayed with us was that of Daniil Medvedev, index finger to ear, inviting, no, urging the Arthur Ashe Stadium assemblage to shower him with boos. But by then, he’d already won them over, a brazenfaced upstart who, after pushing their buttons for days, had come this close to toppling Rafael Nadal in a five-set final.
When Nadal fell to the court, the 2019 US Open title finally secured, it wasn’t so much out of jubilation as it was pure exhaustion. Up two sets and a break, it looked like the Mallorcan would be back in Midtown at a decent hour, maybe settling into a celebratory plate of pasta y gambas. But it took everything he had and more to hold off a Medvedev comeback, eking out a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory in just under five hours.
“The way that he fought, the way that he played, is a champion’s way,” Nadal told the gathered media that evening.
That ‘champion’s way’ has paid off for Medvedev. Today, the Russian leapfrogs Nadal to seize No. 2 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, becoming the first player not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray to occupy that spot in more than a decade-and-a-half.
For good measure, Medvedev celebrated the milestone one day earlier by winning his 10th title at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille. “I am really happy," he said. “I knew that I would become No. 2... [but] it is always better when you step up the rankings when you do something great... it is great for the self-esteem that just before becoming No. 2 on Monday, I win a tournament.”
It’s a historic achievement, the breakup of a stranglehold that traced back to Lleyton Hewitt in July 2005. Did anyone, maybe not even Medvedev himself, truly see this coming? Didn’t tennis fans envision someone like Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych or Dominic Thiem getting there first? All came close. But it took Medvedev to make it happen.
“He’s just so solid,” observed Novak Djokovic, who’s thrice been on the losing end against Medvedev, but who last Monday become the longest-reigning World No. 1 in FedEx ATP Rankings history [read immersive tribute]. “I heard Jim Courier calling him a master chess player because of the way he tactically positions himself on the court, and it’s true. He’s definitely a very smart tennis player.”
Countryman Andrey Rublev said, “He reads the game really well and it’s amazing the patience he has to stay so long in the rallies, to not rush, to take his time, and these things are amazing because, in the end, these little details, they make him who he is. You need to be focused 100 per cent every point, because as soon as you relax or something, then he will use this opportunity.”
Has Medvedev now set a precedent? Will his ascension give belief to those who follow him?
Back at the 2019 US Open, New Yorkers were just as impressed by the first-time Slam finalist as Nadal, though it was perhaps Medvedev’s moxie, not his unorthodox game, that resonated most. In the third round, he had shown some stubbornness in his four-set dismissal of Feliciano Lopez, at one point snatching a towel from a ball kid a bit too hastily and, after a subsequent warning from the chair umpire, tossing his racquet. The fans, in turn, showed their disapproval with a chorus of boos.
Medvedev was all too happy to play the villain, telling fans, “Thank you all, guys, because your energy tonight gave me the win. If you were not here, guys, I would probably lose the match… So I want all of you to know, when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.”
Wait, did that really just happen? Did this Medvedev kid, who remained relatively unknown outside Russia despite playing consecutive finals in Washington, Montreal and Cincinnati, just out-Gotham Gotham City? These are the folks who invented The Bronx Cheer. Nobody, I mean NOBODY calls out a stadium-full of New Yorkers.
“I actually have no idea why the demons go out when I play tennis,” said Medvedev.
But Medvedev seemed to revel in his role as chief mischief-maker. He just kept on winning, taking out 2016 US Open champion Wawrinka in the quarter-finals and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals, extending his winning streak to 12 consecutive matches.
By the time he reached the final against Nadal, something remarkable had happened: He’d won the crowd. You just had to admire the gumption, the gall to stand up to them like that. He might have been born in Moscow, but deep down he was one of their own.
“DANIIL MEDVEDEV IS MORE NEW YORK THAN MOST NEW YORKERS,” the New York Post called out.
Medvedev’s coach, Gilles Cervara, tried to shed some light on his gifted charge with the eccentric groundstrokes.
“His game is like his personality — very different,” explained the Frenchman, as Medvedev surged toward the final. “It’s like coaching a genius. Sometimes a genius, you don’t understand them. It’s like this. They’re different. And you have to connect to this guy like he is.”
By the end of 2019, Medvedev was no longer an unknown. He led the ATP Tour in wins that year with 59, highlighted by a 29-3 run that included six straight finals and his first ATP Masters 1000 crown (Cincinnati). Rising to No. 4 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, he became the highest-ranked Russian since Nikolay Davydenko in 2008.
Medvedev would carry that momentum into 2020, claiming wins in his last 10 matches of the year, including seven Top-10 victories. En route to the title at the Nitto ATP Finals, the baseliner defeated No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Nadal and No. 3 Thiem, becoming the first player to sweep the Top 3 in a single edition of the season finale.
Few were surprised when Medvedev, after helping lead Russia to the 2021 ATP Cup title, knifed his way through the draw at the Australian Open and reached the second major final of his career. Not even Stefanos Tsitsipas.
After falling to Medvedev, 7-6(5), 7-5, in the 2019 Rolex Shanghai Masters semi-finals, the Athenian had been dismissive of his opponent’s game. “I don’t mean to be rude at all, but it’s just boring,” said Tsitsipas. But prior to their semi-final clash in Melbourne, he was nothing but complimentary: “I might have said in the past that he plays boring, but I don’t really think he plays boring. He just plays extremely smart and outplays you. He’s somebody I really need to be careful with and just take my chances and press.”
Medvedev prevailed in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 7-5.
Only days after his 25th birthday, he would come up short in the final against Djokovic, who captured his record ninth Australian Open title. But the 6’6” Muscovite had taken another step in his maturation, further establishing himself among the game’s elite. Beginning with his title run at the Rolex Paris Masters last November, through the Australian Open semi-finals, Medvedev won 20 consecutive matches and ran up a 12-match winning streak against Top-10 opponents.
That disrupter so many of us were first introduced to at the 2019 US Open? The one who welcomed the boos? He’s an established presence now, as formidable an opponent as they come. As the new World No. 2 continues his pursuit of his first Grand Slam crown, he’s given us so much to cheer for.