Can Medvedev Finally Crack The Nadal Code?
A study in opposites, Russian and Spaniard battle for a place in the Nitto ATP Finals championship match
They were born 10 years apart, one in Mallorca, the other in Moscow. The Mallorcan is gunning for the one big title that’s eluded him. The insurgent Muscovite is looking to win what would be his biggest prize yet. The younger man is a hunter seeking redemption and to prove himself, while the veteran is the hunted, a man with nothing to prove except perhaps to remind us that his generation isn’t ready for the sport’s changing of the guard quite yet.
One has the rippling biceps, the other the long limbs seemingly built to reach balls in other postal codes. They come from different worlds, one with Latin blood and Mediterranean sensibilities, the other with Slavic blood and cool Russian conviction. Each man now stands in the other’s way and only one gets to keep playing tennis after Saturday’s semi-final clash for the ages.
Daniil Medvedev hasn’t beaten his Nitto ATP Finals semi-final opponent, Rafael Nadal, in three ATP Head2Head clashes. But don’t let that goose egg fool you — Medvedev took the Spaniard to the brink in last year’s US Open Final and, in their most recent duel, he led 5/1 in a deciding set tie-break last year at this very tournament.
Both enter the match looking like a rare vintage of Chateau Lafite; if they were stocks, you’d want to own them. Medvedev clinched his group with straight-sets wins over Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic, while Nadal lost a pair of riveting tie-breaks to Dominic Thiem, but rebounded strongly against Stefanos Tsitsipas.
A reporter asked Nadal Thursday if Medvedev vintage 2020 is a new and improved varietal he hasn’t faced before.
“I don't think nobody is completely different player, no?” said Nadal, 34, who is No. 2 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. “I think he's playing great, but we can't forget that last year he played amazing too. He played the final in Washington, final in Montreal, winning Cincinnati, final US Open. Then he won in Shanghai and I think a couple more tournaments. So better than this is very difficult, no? He has plenty of confidence and [he is] playing [at a] very, very high level. But we are in the semi-finals of the Nitto ATP Finals so we can't expect another story, no?”
But later in the press conference, Nadal seemed to reconsider if facing Medvedev for a fourth time might present a new story, given the Russian’s momentum.
“The end [was] a very strange end of the match, no?” said Nadal, referring to the tie-break of their last match. “[It’s] true that [in] the end I was lucky and he [made] a couple of mistakes to close the match. I know it's a different story. He's playing great. I think last year he was very tired mentally at the end of the season. I think this year is a different story.”
So after two narrow losses to Nadal, will Medvedev get his story straight on the fourth try? The defeats could give him confidence, since he got so close to the prize, or they could haunt him because he failed to close the sale. If his social media posts are any barometer, bet on the former. Last week, when Tennis TV tweeted out a brilliant passing shot Medvedev hit in his Nitto ATP Finals loss last year to Nadal, the Russian retweeted the video with the comment, “Oh you mean the match I choked?” with a host of emojis.
Acceptance is officially the final stage of coping with grief but a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. And Medvedev certainly showed he has that at the US Open last year. He verbally sparred with fans early on in the tournament but when he dropped the first two sets of the final to Nadal, the crowd embraced him, propelling him to push the Spanish champ to five grueling sets.
Both of these losses came down to a few key points. Rafa’s experience allowed him to keep cool and prevail. Medvedev said Wednesday that tennis is a game of decisions. In some key moments last year at the event, he made the wrong ones. But he hopes this year will be a different story.
“Of course [I’m] really happy, because after last year, [I finished] 0-3, the [loss] against Rafa, so you always have doubts in your head like maybe next year is going to be [the] last year in London, I'm going to go out there and be tight, again, I'm not going to show anything in the Nitto ATP Finals,” said Medvedev, 24, who is ranked No. 4 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. “Well, [this hasn’t been] the case. [I] finished number one in the group already, which is great.”
The Muscovite enters the semi-finals as the only undefeated player left in the draw. In fact, the Russian did not drop a set in his Group Tokyo 1970 wins against Zverev, Djokovic and Diego Schwartzman.
The match is a toss-up. The hunted has the experience, gravitas, and motivation to capture the one big trophy that’s eluded him. The hunter, 26-10 on the year, is on a surface he prefers and is riding an eight-match win streak going into his match with the Spaniard. The winner will be the man who can win the thigh-busting, track-meet rallies and then quickly collect themselves for the next point.
On Thursday, Nadal sounded like a king who still relishes fending off new threats and challenges to his kingdom.
“It's true I never won [this tournament], but sometimes you play well and you don't win, no?” said Nadal, who married his longtime girlfriend Maria Francisca Perello a year ago at a seaside fortress in Mallorca. “I am looking forward to playing against probably the player who is playing better the past couple of weeks, and I'm excited about that. Let's see. [It’s] going to be [an] amazing challenge and I hope to be ready for it.”