MELBOURNE—Daniil Medvedev’s shots don’t crackle. They nestle. Turn the rectangle of the tennis court into an English muffin, Medvedev’s racquet concurrently spoon, knife and fork as he dollops, slathers and pokes the ball into nooks and crannies. Rip. Dip. Chip. Clip. Snip. As the end nears, the opponent’s contact point is delicately, mercifully shredded. Such is the deceptive genius of the man now regarded as the next men’s Slam champion not named Rafa, Novak or Roger.
This evening, on Rod Laver Arena, the fourth-seeded Medvedev took two hours and 36 minutes to mildly vanquish a tenacious and tactically versatile Frances Tiafoe, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
“He’s so good at making you play, putting you in an awkward position on the court,” said the 50th-ranked Tiafoe. Said Medvedev, “First round of a Slam, never easy. Sometimes the most important [thing] is to really not show some crazy level or crazy shots, but just to win the match, get into the tournament.”
Tiafoe begin the match miserably, surrendering his serve in the opening game. As the tennis world has seen frequently these last six months, Medvedev took control in trademark form, varying the pace and direction of his shots with hypnotic deception, accuracy and consistency. “Looks like everything’s late,” said Tiafoe, “looks like it’s going to go out, and then the ball catches the back of the line.”
Soon enough, the Russian served at 4-1, 40-15. But Tiafoe fought back, winning nine straight points as Medvedev vanished in what Australians call a walkabout. Though Medvedev had built enough of a cushion to take that first set, by this stage it was clear that Tiafoe had at last sunk his teeth into the tennis and was not yet going to drift into the trance-like state endured by so many recent Medvedev victims.
The way Tiafoe did this was to discover his own mix – aggressive court positioning, angled and powerful forehands, backhands both sliced short crosscourt with one hand and driven deep down-the-line with two, drop shots, pinpoint serves. Tiafoe’s array was reminiscent of the smorgasbord that had helped him reach the quarterfinals here a year ago. Said Tiafoe, “I was being unpredictable.”
Aware of how Tiafoe had seized the real estate of the court, Medvedev said, “When I lost the second set, I knew I had to be more aggressive because he started pushing me all over the court.”
As the range of rallies proved, this match was an ode to crafty, public parks tennis, Tiafoe and Medvedev shining more at tactical problem-solving than textbook-like stroke production. Though Medvedev stands 6’ 6”, his style is not the one often associated with players that tall, the Russian often eschewing sheer power for something far more diabolical. Consider one point, for example, when Medvedev came to net and fought off one hard Tiafore pass after another before winning the point on his fourth volley of the rally. Or another when Medvedev passed Tiafoe with a curled slice forehand. “You think you’ve found the antidote,” said Tiafoe, “but he’s not going anywhere.”
In the third, Medvedev sprinted ahead 3-0, breaking Tiafoe at 0-1 in a game that saw Medvedev hit a backhand volley off the throat of his racquet, a groundstroke that dribbled off the net and yet another that skimmed its way into a winner. Here, have some extra marmalade. Though Tiafoe fought back for 3-all, his consistency couldn’t keep up with his imagination. Serving at 4-5 in the third, Tiafoe struck two forehands wide and a backhand long to go down love-40. On the first, a relieved and tranquil Medvedev curled a backhand drop shot winner to take a two sets to one lead.
A similar pattern of Medvedev assertion and Tiafoe counterattack flavored the fourth. Medvedev served at 2-0. Tiafoe broke back, but then surrendered his serve yet again. Even then, with Medvedev serving at 4-2, Tiafoe went up love-30. Medvedev rallied to hold. Down 2-5, Tiafoe made three unforced errors and was broken at 15.
“I think I have a lot of things to improve regarding today’s match,” said Medvedev. “As I say, finally the most important is to win, to just win the match, get into the second round, get the sensations of the court, of the atmosphere, everything. Usually later in the tournament everything goes better and better.”
If never quite able to fully ensnare the feisty Tiafoe, Medvedev this evening was well aware that simply advancing was good enough.