DUBAI HIGHLIGHTS: Medvedev outhits Djokovic

A week ago the world marked the one-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a day that Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev would surely rather forget.

Both of these Moscow natives quickly voiced their disapproval for the their government’s action. Rublev did it in particularly memorable fashion, scrawling “No war please” across a camera lens after one of his matches at this same event in Dubai. From a personal and professional standpoint, the invasion had to have a dispiriting effect on both men.

The ATP removed the Russian flags from their names. They were banned from defending their Davis Cup title. They were banned from playing in the inaugural United Cup. They were banned from Wimbledon. In Medvedev’s case, all he could do was keep expressing the hope that he’d be allowed to play anywhere at all.

From a results perspective, Medvedev seemed to take his new status harder. When the invasion began, he was No. 1 in the world, but after early exits and poor performances at the US Open, the ATP Finals, and the Australian Open, he dropped out of the Top 10. Rublev had a more normal year, maintaining his No. 6 ranking and making the quarters in New York and Melbourne. But he also didn’t make any upward progress over the past 12 months, and he came to Dubai having lost early in Rotterdam and Doha.

But as they get ready to face each other in Saturday’s flag-less finale in Dubai, both Russians must feel that, tennis-wise at least, something of a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. Each recorded what qualifies as a breakthrough victory in their semifinals on Friday.

Rublev was 0-5 against his opponent, Alexander Zverev. He hadn’t even won a set against the man he calls his “older brother.” The matchup was clearly a bad one for him. Zverev is taller and rangier; he has a bigger serve and safer ground strokes; and he can retreat behind the baseline and track down whatever Rublev fires at him. But on this day, finally, things were different.


Earlier in the tournament, Rublev saved five match points to survive Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Earlier in the tournament, Rublev saved five match points to survive Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Rublev broke Zverev in a long opening game, and he seemed to have the answers to his opponent that he had never had in the past. Never much of a net player, Rublev closed out one long rally with a drop volley. He won another by hitting behind Zverev. And when the match got tight late in the second set, he threw in a new wrinkle, a little backhand chip to Zverev’s vulnerable forehand side. The shot didn’t look like much, but it drew a couple of key errors that helped Rublev save a set point, and finally clinch the victory on his sixth match point, 11-9 in the tiebreaker. When his last forehand pass touched down just inside the baseline, Rublev gave his big brother a long hug at the net.

“I was thinking it was going to be a third set,” Rublev said after the 6-3, 7-6 (9) win. “I was preparing mentally for the third set, but I somehow saved a set point. I made a good return and then I said ‘OK, let’s try to make it here.’ I won a crazy rally and I was lucky. It was a super intense tiebreak.”

Unlike Rublev, Medvedev did have experience in beating his semifinal opponent, Novak Djokovic. But it had been a while. Since losing to Medvedev in the 2021 US Open final, Djokovic had adjusted his game by serving and volleying against the defensive-minded Russian. Djokovic had won all three of their meetings in 2022, and their first of 2023, in Adelaide.

But this was a new Medvedev. He had turned his game, his confidence, and his season around by winning a title in Rotterdam two weeks ago, and another in Doha last week. The difference, according to Medvedev, had come in the make-or-break moments. He wasn’t just playing well; he was winning.

“Last year I had a lot of tournaments, a lot of matches, where it was not bad, but I was missing. I was losing some tiebreaks in important moments,” Medvedev said earlier this week. “In Rotterdam I managed to win these close matches, to play good on break points, to save my break points. That’s what brings you confidence.”


Medvedev is chasing his third title in three weeks and second at the 500 level (Rotterdam).

Medvedev is chasing his third title in three weeks and second at the 500 level (Rotterdam).

Medvedev played with that confidence against Djokovic. He was quick to the ball, and he hit it with depth and purpose. Over 20 games, he made just 12 errors, and he had the edge in every important, 30-30 point. Djokovic, meanwhile, started slowly, and then rushed too fast to catch up. He was broken early when a backhand found the net, and later in the first set he hit a smash straight into the ground. He finished with 38 errors.

Djokovic had his biggest issue with his best shot, his return. He read Medvedev’s serve, he got into position to hit it, but he went for a little too much too often, and missed several returns that we’re used to seeing him hammer for winners. Two of the biggest of those errors came with Medvedev serving for the first set at 5-4. Djokovic played well enough to go up 15-30, and then had a look at two straight second serves. But he missed them both.

In general, Djokovic seemed a little impatient. He kept knocking on the door; on a normal day, he would break it down eventually. But he was a hair off, and Medvedev wasn’t. With Medvedev serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, Djokovic reached 30-30, and hit a nearly perfect backhand drop shot. Instead of following it forward, though, Djokovic hung back at the baseline, which allowed Medvedev to win the point with an even better re-drop.

“When you play Novak, you have to play your best,” Medvedev said after his 6-4, 6-4 win. “Kind of hope he doesn’t play his best.”

“In the second set I didn’t face one break point, but there were so many 30-all games. But I managed to stay composed.”

Djokovic’s 15-match win streak comes to an end, while Medvedev extends his to 13. On Saturday he’ll try to make it 14 in a row, and three titles in a row, against Rublev. Medvedev leads their head-to-head 4-2, but Rublev has won the last two. “It’s going to be 30 shots a rally,” Rublev, said, as both men braced for a marathon.

Whatever happens, though, after a year of not having a nation to play for, it may just feel good for these longtime friends and former teammates to be in a final together