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Don’t Dream, It’s Over: On Daniil Medvedev’s Inevitable March to No. 1
The US Open champion is all but guaranteed to usurp Novak Djokovic atop the ATP rankings in 2022 because of the Serb’s opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine, adding a surreal twist to a long overdue change of the guard.
Published Feb 23, 2022
WATCH: Medvedev kicked off his Acapulco campaign with a decisive win over Benoit Paire, putting the onus on Novak Djokovic to at least reach the semifinals in Dubai to have a chance at remaining world No. 1.
The air is thick in Acapulco this week, and it’s not just the humidity. Top seed Daniil Medvedev arrived at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel in pole position to capture the No. 1 ranking, making him the first man outside the Big 4 to achieve the feat since Andy Roddick in 2004.
Medvedev was seven years old at the time, only about a year removed from when he first picked up a racquet. Perhaps he watched Roger Federer defeat countryman Marat Safin to begin the Big 4’s oligarchy at the Australian Open.
“When you’re young you feel like it’s impossible, so that’s why you dream about it,” he said of his hopes to one day stand atop the ATP rankings. “When it becomes closer to you, you dream less about it and do more to achieve it.”
The 26-year-old has done much just to ascend to No. 2—something contemporaries Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alexander Zverev have all failed to do by peaking at No. 3—compiling an unassailable resume over the last 12 months that includes seven finals, four titles, and a first major at the US Open, where he ended Novak Djokovic’s historic bid at a Calendar Year Grand Slam.
“It’s not even a dream anymore, it’s a goal to play well these next three tournaments. If I manage to do it, I’m going to have a chance, and if I don’t, then it’s my fault in a way, but it’s also an experience, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Medvedev is indeed dreaming a bit less lately, most publicly after an Australian Open defeat from two sets up to Rafael Nadal, who surpassed Djokovic and Federer in the Grand Slam race with a 21st major title. He opened his post-loss press conference with a vivid monologue cum roman à clef, concluding that the disappointment had driven “the kid”—or he, himself—to stop dreaming altogether.
[Becoming world No. 1] is not even a dream anymore, it’s a goal to play well these next three tournaments. If I manage to do it, I’m going to have a chance, and if I don’t, then it’s my fault in a way, but it’s also an experience. Daniil Medvedev
“Life is interesting,” Medvedev mused in Acapulco after a straight-set win over Benoit Paire, “and tennis life is interesting, so there are different moments where, whether with the best or the worst matches in your career, some time passes and it’s always an experience. At least for me, it motivates me to be better. I learn from my mistakes and also from my victories.
“Australia is the same: when time passed, I made some conclusions about myself and everything else. It helped me mature and understand some things better. As we all know, I never ask anyone to cheer me on, and when you’re playing against Rafa, who is playing for his 21st Grand Slam—and we never know how much time he has left because he himself has said he’s been many times injured and many times thought he wouldn’t come back—I understand that everybody is going to be for Rafa. It’s just that, everybody was for Rafa and there were some really disrespectful moments, and that’s what I was really sad about.
“At the same time, I know my mistakes, so after the tournament I made some conclusions where I’m going to try and be better and care less about others.”
Perhaps it’s normal to expect disillusion from the first man to definitively break up tennis’ four titans, but the joylessness compounds what is already shaping up to be an awkward transfer of power. While Medvedev can guarantee his ascension to No. 1 by winning the title in Acapulco, he can expect minimal resistance from Djokovic, who is playing only his first event of 2022 after an Australian Open visa fiasco kept him from mounting a title defense.
Specifically, his opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine—something all but a handful of players have received—will likely continue wreaking havoc on his schedule and prevent fans from watching what was becoming the game’s best rivalry. In Dubai for the eponymous Duty Free Tennis Championships, the five-time champion has been in fine form with a pair of decisive wins over Lorenzo Musetti and Karen Khachanov, but one can’t help but wonder: to what end? After defeating Musetti, the Serb confirmed he is presently unable to enter the United States to play Indian Wells or Miami, and strong remarks from the Italian government indicated he would be hard-pressed to play Rome.
For all the gravitas often afforded to the ATP, this is starting to feel like less of a ceremonious changing of the guard and more like consequences for the rebel without a clue.
Medvedev, for his part, holds no ill will towards Djokovic, and can relate to feeling misunderstood by mainstream tennis fans.
“Every time I’ve achieved something—and not only me, as we can see with many players—Novak always congratulates everyone. To be honest, we all know sometimes—and I know better than anybody—that we’re all competitive and so sometimes during a match, there can be something with the fans, the opponent, referees…anything. He can sometimes get really angry in some moments, as well, but I don’t think, maybe not since he was much younger, but at least when I came on tour, you’ll find one match where Novak says something bad about his opponent or doesn’t congratulate him.
“That’s how he is, so I’m sure if I achieve No. 1, it’ll be like this, but I have to do it first!”
Djokovic echoed those sentiments in Dubai, having discussed Medvedev’s post-Melbourne malaise over text.
“I really felt sad that he was experiencing these kinds of emotions because the inner kid is the reason why we are playing tennis,” he said. “I mean, at least in my case and I think in his case. Most of the players pick up the racquet when they were young because they fell in love with the sport, they dream to achieve some of the greatest things this sport can offer them.
“I had plenty of matches where I had the crowd on my side and crowd against me. This is part of the sport. You can't expect always to have the support behind you. Sometimes you just wish things to be different.”
Tennis fans certainly do: most wish for a current world No. 1 unmoored by self-interest and a more loveable challenger, one less prone to his own outbursts and Honeymooners dynamic with crowds.
And yet, Medvedev’s on-court character remains at odds with his clever and often contrite press conference persona. Thoughtful and deferential, he radiates a sharp intelligence that puts him on track to one day be a cult hero à la Andy Murray.
“There are always tough moments,” he clarified when asked about career pressures. “When you’re outside Top 100, you want to break Top 100 and it’s not easy. When you’re at the top of the rankings, everyone plays against you like it’s their last match and sometimes they just play unreal. You have to defend a lot of points and the goals you have are even tougher to achieve: if you’re Top 100 and you win a few matches, you’re Top 90, and so it’s easier to improve. It gets tougher the higher and higher you go.
“All of this is great experience and that’s why I love tennis and it’s the same here. No matter which ranking I have or how good or badly I’m playing at this moment, I want improve, practice, improve my game, physical and mental shape. At the same time, I want to enjoy life, so that’s why I enjoy tennis.”
Ready as he’ll ever be to become the face of the men’s game, Medvedev has studied the masters, learned from his own missteps and appears committed to temper his pricklier instincts—growing into the professional he once dreamed of becoming and now aims to be.