The third set of Friday’s quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev had just begun, and the Serb had taken a 0-30 lead on the Russian’s serve. After bouncing back from a first-set loss to win the second set, Djokovic seemed to have put his early frustrations behind him. He had also found some semblance of rhythm against a player who, as he would say later, “doesn’t give you much rhythm.” Djokovic may not have been playing his best, but he wasn’t pulling the mental ripcord and giving in, either.
Which made what happened next all the more surprising, and, from Medvedev’s perspective, impressive. Medvedev hit a perfectly timed drop shot to even the score at 30-30, then used a series of strong first and second serves to hold. Three games later, Medvedev shrugged off the loss of a 41-shot rally and broke for 3-1. In truth, it was Djokovic who needed to watch out, because Medvedev, an up-and-coming player who was still searching for a signature win, who meant business.
The 23-year-old Medvedev has been around for a few years, but he says he has dedicated himself to the sport in a new way over the last two seasons. Maybe that’s why it still feels as if every time he plays, he reveals a new strength to his game.
After watching him beat Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday, I came away impressed by Medvedev’s ability to disrupt his opponent’s game, to change paces, to make the other guy do things he doesn’t want to do. But after watching him beat Djokovic today, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, I came away marveling at (a) Medvedev’s patience; he stuck in rallies long enough to force Djokovic to go to his bailout drop shot a lot; and (b) the way Medvedev can control and finish points with his backhand. The shot isn’t a thing of beauty; he almost looks like he’s shoveling the ball from corner to corner. But, as Djokovic said, Medvedev “doesn’t make many mistakes” with it, and he “hits it very low, with depth.” Even if Medvedev isn’t cracking a winner with his backhand, it’s difficult for his opponents to do anything with his rally shot from that side.
By the middle of the third set, it looked as if Djokovic had had enough of trying. With his consistency, his depth, his timely serving, his drop shots, and his surprising speed, Medvedev was essentially mirroring Djokovic’s game, and doing it every bit as well. Djokovic became visibly deflated down the stretch, and finished with 47 unforced errors on a frustratingly breezy afternoon.
“A windy day like today, conditions are changing every single game,” Djokovic said. “It’s kind of tough to find the rhythm. He improved his movement a lot since last year. He definitely deserves to be where he is.”
Afterward, Djokovic stressed that Paris is the ultimate goal, and that there’s a long clay season ahead. That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s also true that he has struggled to find a consistently high level of play since the Australian Open. Maybe it was the surface switch, but in his matches against Medvedev and Philipp Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo, Djokovic looked reactive rather than proactive, a step or shot behind rather than a step or shot ahead. He has won on clay in the past by going to the drop-shot well over and over, but Medvedev didn’t let him win with it today.
“It’s definitely the best match of my career,” Medvedev said. “Not in terms of level of tennis, but definitely by the result.”
Medvedev has won four since tournaments over the last year; he leads the ATP with 21 match wins in 2019; and he’s on the verge of cracking the Top 10. But this is the match we’ve been waiting for from him. He started fast, and even when Djokovic mounted his expected comeback in the second set, Medvedev never gave an inch or appeared to lose belief.
Watch out ATP, another kid means business.