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Daniil Medvedev is doing everything he needs to join the game’s elite

Daniil Medvedev is doing everything he needs to join the game’s elite

The Russian knows what's essential in tennis, and what isn't; he showed that once again in Shanghai, where he won his third title in his last six tournaments.

“Everybody’s talking about how they need new guys, something new, so I gave them something new: I don’t celebrate my wins,” Daniil Medvedev said after his latest big victory, over Alexander Zverev in the Shanghai Rolex Masters final on Sunday.

“I just stay calm, I do my job, and bam, done.”

Medvedev has a knack for concentrating on the essentials and ignoring what’s unnecessary in tennis.

On his serve, he doesn’t waste time with an elaborate motion, or any motion at all, really; he just grabs the ball, throws it up in the air, and slams it down. On his ground strokes, he doesn’t add much spin or shape to the ball, or much polish to his shots; he shovels his backhand and swipes at his forehand, but he rarely misses either. Tactically, he doesn’t bother trying to change the direction of the ball; he just keeps hitting that locked-in crosscourt backhand until his opponent finally loses patience, and the point. Even the way Medvedev stands to receive serve—straight up and down, rocking back and forth slightly—looks casual and unassuming.

But look a little more closely as Medvedev is watching his opponent get ready to serve, and you’ll see that he’s anything but casual. His intensity is all in his eyes. When the other player’s service toss goes up, his eyes narrow, calmly, to meet the challenge.

There are two “i”s in Daniil, and when it comes to the ATP tour these days, the eyes definitely have it. On Sunday, the 23-year-old Russian played his sixth straight final, won his second straight Masters 1000 event, and recorded his first win over Zverev in five tries, 6-4, 6-1. Since the start of August, Medvedev is 31-3, and since losing the US Open final (barely) to Rafael Nadal, he has won 18 straight sets. He also just passed Roger Federer in the ATP Race to London.

“It’s something outrageous I have done in the past few months, and I have been working for it,” Medvedev said. “I just take it and hope I’m going to do much more.”

What the 6-foot-5 Medvedev has done is find a sweet spot between offense and defense, steadiness and shotmaking. His simple service motion is endlessly repeatable; whenever he needs a point in the ad court, he pounds a serve out wide. From the baseline, he backs up and uses his long wingspan to cover every inch of the court. And when the other player moves forward, Medvedev’s eyes narrow even more; he basically doesn’t miss passing shots.

For the opponent, it must feel as if trying to get the ball past Medvedev is a futile exercise. Even if you hit a big serve, he has time to return it; even if you hit a good approach, he’ll come up with a better pass. Zverev served his previous two opponents, Federer and Matteo Berrettini, off the court; against the albatross-like Medvedev, the German’s old hesitancy on his serve returned. On crucial points, he hit double faults instead of aces.

Zverev’s one highlight came while he was serving at 2-3 in the first set. In the middle of that game, he sat back and rallied with Medvedev—and rallied, and rallied. Finally, after 31 shots, Medvedev missed. Zverev had done the impossible: He had outlasted Medvedev. But he must have wondered: how many more times can I do that? Is that what’s it going to take to win this match? Zverev would win just two more games.

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“In the past few months, he’s probably been the best player in the world,” Zverev said.

“This one is amazing because Shanghai I think is one of the most prestigious Masters on the tour,” Medvedev said. “Especially in the past 10 years, there were only three players who managed to win this one, so it’s really special to have my photo in the corridor over the next many years.”

The three players Medvedev is referring to are Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray; combined, they had won every title in Shanghai since 2009. Medvedev is still getting used to the idea of seeing his name and face alongside those of the legendary Big 4 generation. Could he be the first of his own generation to make the leap into their stratosphere? With his run of six straight finals, he has done something that virtually no other young player has: he has shown that he can maintain the highest level of success for a long period of time. To be like Rafa, Roger, and Novak, you have to be a threat to win every tournament you enter, and you have to make a full effort to do it every week. Medvedev is proving that he has the skill, and the pride, and the high standards, to do just that.

When he won the last point against Zverev, Medvedev didn’t raise his arms or pump his fist. He didn’t even take a ball out of his pocket and blast it into the crowd, the way most winners do. Instead, he just turned and tapped it to a ball kid. It reminded me of Barry Sanders, the Hall of Fame running back for the Detroit Lions; when Sanders scored a touchdown, he just handed the ball to the referee—no spike, no dance. As Medvedev understands, a lack of theatrics comes across as refreshing to many.

On his way to the net, when he saw Zverev coming toward him, Medvedev finally cracked a smile. He knows what’s not necessary in tennis, and he knows what is. Right now he’s enjoying every moment, and smiling his way to the top of the game.