With all of the surprises on clay so far this year—two unexpected losses for Rafael Nadal, nine tournaments with as many different winners, and more—one that has stood out over the past couple of weeks is the emergence of Daniil Medvedev as a threat on the surface.
Entering 2019 having won only a handful of matches on clay, the Russian has thrived so far this year with wins against Top 10 players Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Kei Nishikori in a two-week span.
Over the past few years, the world No. 14 and his young countrymen Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev have experienced a rapid rise up the rankings. Now that Medvedev has reached another level in his development, will the other two keep pace with him on the clay—and can all of them make their mark at the year’s second Grand Slam, the French Open?
From the late 1990s to the 2000s, Roland Garros was quite hospitable to a trio of Russian players: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin and Nikolay Davydenko. In 1996, Kafelnikov became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam singles title with his French Open triumph. Safin, who won two major titles on hard courts, reached the round of 16 in Paris in his Grand Slam debut in 1998, then advanced to that round or better another five times.
While Davydenko didn’t win a Grand Slam title during his career, he made it to the final four at the French Open twice, and tacked on a couple of other quarterfinal finishes there. He’s also the most prolific clay-court titlist among the three with 10 victories on the surface.
By the time all three of those players were out of the game, Russia experienced a dry spell on the court with Mikhail Youzhny the last one to hold up the country’s hopes in the men’s game on a global scale. As his presence on the tour began to wane, Russia actually went without a representative in the Top 100 for a period of time—a surprising result for a relatively recent two-time Davis Cup champion.
But in true cyclical fashion, Russia has experienced a renaissance in the men’s game, led by Medvedev, Khachanov and Rublev. Last year, Khachanov became the first of the group to capture a Masters 1000 title when he won in Paris, defeating Djokovic in the final for his third championship of the season. All three of his victories came indoors on hard courts, but clay is actually where he made his mark early: His first fourth-round appearance at a Grand Slam came at the 2017 French Open, and he replicated that feat a year later. This year has been a struggle for the Russian No. 1 as he enters this week’s tournament in Munich with a below-.500 record.
Medvedev, though, picked up where he left off from in 2018, when he won his first three career singles titles—all on hard courts. He added another this year in Sofia on indoor hard courts, and unexpectedly that form has carried over to the clay as he’s won nine of his last 10 matches.
Rublev, the youngest of the three, might be the more natural clay-courter of the group, capturing his first singles title in Umag in 2017 as a 19-year-old lucky loser. Hitting a career-high ranking of No. 31 in the world a few months later, Rublev’s progress was slowed by injury. He’s worked his way back into the top 100 but has yet to find his footing on the clay this year.
As with prior groups of precocious countrymen throughout the history of the sport, Medvedev, Khachanov and Rublev have all pushed each other to new heights. With somewhat impressive results on clay the past few years, the French Open could provide the latest opportunity to establish themselves among the game’s best.