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Daniil Medvedev finally proved to himself that his hard-court game can work just as well on clay
“I still kind of don’t believe it—not that I won it, but that I played so well this week,” said the Russian after winning his first clay-court title, in Rome.
Published May 21, 2023
PRESS CONFERENCE: Daniil Medvedev, Rome champion
Daniil Medvedev, champion on the fabled red clay at the Foro Italico in Rome? We knew the tournament would be different without Rafael Nadal in the draw, but I don’t think many expected it to end with the Russian, after nearly 10 years on tour, winning his first clay-court title. That includes Medvedev himself.
“This one is really special,” he said after his 7-5, 7-5 win over Holger Rune in Sunday’s final, “because I didn’t think it was going to be able to happen.
“I still kind of don’t believe it—not that I won it, but that I played so well this week.”
But is it really so stunning? Yes, Medvedev calls himself a “hard-court specialist.” Yes, he has spent much of the last two springs railing against clay. Yes, of his 32 career finals, just one had come on dirt. And no, the lack of heavy topspin on his ground strokes, and his lack of a killer forehand, weren’t ideal. In March, when Medvedev had a meltdown about how much he hated the slow hard court in Indian Wells, the worst insult he could come up with is that it played “like clay.” He practically spat as he said the words.
Even after his four-title run earlier this year, Medvedev was just as unhappy as ever about having to return to Europe and start the clay swing.
“When I came back to practice on clay first few days, I was hating my life,” Medvedev said. “I was in a bad mood. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this again. I don’t want to go through this again.’”
Yet anyone who had never seen or heard of Medvedev before this tournament, and who watched him negotiate his way past three top-tier clay-courters—Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Rune—likely never would have guessed that he has ever had any problems with the surface at all. Medvedev did what he always does: He stood far back to receive serve; he dropped returns at his opponent’s feet when they served and volleyed; he stretched his long limbs on defense; he made as many balls as possible, as deep in the court as possible; he was pinpoint with his passes; and he kept everyone honest with a surprisingly deft drop shot. While he’ll never be mistaken for Nadal or Carlos Alcaraz, that type of tennis will win you plenty of matches on clay.
Medvedev said that he could feel things turning around for him a bit in Monte Carlo and Madrid. It wasn’t his results; he lost in the quarters and the round of 16. It was the fact that his attitude was a little better than normal.
“I was kinda feeling not too bad,” Medvedev said. “Didn’t have too big tantrums.”
By the time he got to Rome, he was experiencing something unexpected.
“I was feeling amazing in practice,” Medvedev said. “[I was asking myself] what’s happening here?”
Medvedev was at his cagiest and most opportunistic on Sunday. For much of the first set, Rune was able to win points with his wide serves, which sent Medvedev into the far corners of the court. But with Rune serving at 5-6, 30-15, Medvedev suddenly countered a kick serve with a winning backhand pass. On the next point, he stepped forward and drilled his biggest backhand of the set and closed with a drop volley. At set point he stormed forward on a bad Rune drop shot and finished with a crosscourt forehand winner.
Hard courts are my only love in tennis. But I definitely like clay courts much more now. Daniil Medvedev
“Tough match,” Medvedev said, “Both of us started a little bit nervous, missing our basics.”
Between sets, Rune berated himself for “pushing the ball,” then came roaring out of the gate in the opening games of the second set. Medvedev said he had to “stop overthinking.”
“That’s a moment when I have to go to his level.”
Or, he could wait until Rune came down to his. Earlier this spring, the Dane blew a third-set lead against Andrey Rublev in the Monte Carlo final. Something similar happened in the second set in Rome. Up 5-3, and serving at 5-4, an antsy and overhyped Rune began to overhit. At 5-4, he pounded two easy forehands long and two backhands into the net. At 5-6, he hit two forehands into the net, a backhand long, and a forehand long at match point.
Rune said the “conditions were slow” and that he needed to serve better; he made just 49 percent of his first deliveries. But he credited Medvedev for the win.
“Today he was good on the passes,” Rune said. “He picked a side and went full. He was well-prepared…He managed everything better today, so well done to him.
“I think he has a good future on clay.”
At 27, Medvedev may finally believe the truth of that statement himself. He says that new strings have helped him hit the ball deeper this season, and new shoes have helped him move better. (“It’s not because I’m sponsored by Lacoste or Technibre I’m [saying] this,” Medvedev insisted.)
The biggest change, of course, is in his head. He had a great to start to the year on hard courts, and that confidence has finally spilled over onto clay. It also didn’t hurt that he never had to face Nadal, Alcaraz or Novak Djokovic in Rome. But if Medvedev isn’t quite a top-tier favorite for the French Open now, you can’t ignore him or wait for him to implode this time around.
“Hards courts are my only love in tennis,” Medvedev said today, “but I definitely like clay courts much more now.”