“If you’re Dominic Thiem,” ESPN’s Brad Gilbert said near the end of the championship match at the Nitto ATP Finals on Sunday, “you’re scratching your head, thinking, ‘What’s this guy going to do next?’”
“This guy” was Daniil Medvedev, and Gilbert was right: Over the course of his 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 win over Thiem, the Russian pulled out every club in his bag, tried every trick in his book, and fired every weapon in his considerable arsenal. You can name the cliché, but over the course of this match, and over the course of his 5-0 run in London, Medvedev gave us a glimpse of the tactical acuity and competitive grit that rocketed him up the rankings last year, and made many of us believe that he’s a future No 1.
What had looked like something of a lost, sophomore-slump, adjust-to-the-spotlight type of season has now ended up with Medvedev winning his biggest title, and beating the Top 3 players in the world—Thiem, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—to do it. No one has done that at an ATP event since David Nalbandian beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Roger Federer in Madrid in 2007, and no one has ever done it at the tour's season-ending championships.
“What a match, one of my best victories, two hours and 42 minutes, three sets, against an amazing player,” Medvedev said.
Medvedev failed to convert any of his fist nine break points, but he eventual broke Thiem, and broke through in London. (Getty Images)
Medvedev needed all three sets, and all two hours and 42 minutes, to make it happen; this win was a process. It’s rare that a player has enough options that he can spend two sets trying out different things until something clicks, but that’s what Medvedev did on Sunday.
He began fairly conventionally, looking to attack with his forehand. When he couldn’t break down Thiem’s defenses, Medvedev tried getting into a slice war with him; instead of driving his backhand, he chipped it low and dropped it short. Again, Thiem had the answers, especially on break points—he saved the first nine that he faced, and wasn’t broken until the third set. Whatever Medvedev threw at him, Thiem seemed capable of ripping a 100-m.p.h. ball off of it.
But for the second straight day, when all looked lost, Medvedev pulled himself out of the fire. On Saturday, he broke Nadal when Rafa served for the match. Against Thiem, Medvedev, facing a break point at 3-3 in the second set, saved himself with stab forehand volley. Then, in the tiebreaker, after falling behind 0-2, he reeled off seven straight points.
Medvedev did it by playing more resourceful and flexible tennis than Thiem. At 0-2, he snuck forward and won a point at the net. At 3-2, seeing that Thiem was almost exclusively chipping his backhand, Medvedev charged in behind his return to that side, and forced Thiem to try to come up with a chip pass, which he couldn’t do. At 5-2, Medvedev served and volleyed and forced a forehand error from Thiem. At set point, he hit an ace.
In the third set, Medvedev stayed one shot, and thought, ahead of Thiem. He broke serve at 2-2 by sneaking forward during a rally again, and winning another point at the net. He held for 4-2 by serving and volleying—and then hanging on for dear life as Thiem missed the easiest of passing shots.
At 4-3, Medvedev followed his serve to the net, only to sprint back to the baseline and win the point from there. And at 5-4, he closed out the match and the title with four service winners. He was 14 for 16 on first-serve points in the final set.
“I always said before this tournament that it would be an amazing story if, here in London, where the tournament was for 12 years, that the first champion would be Russian and the last champion would be Russian, too,” Medvedev said, referring to Nikolay Davydenko’s win at the O2 in 2009.
If Medvedev showed the uses of tactical thinking in tennis, Thiem showed its limitations. For most of two sets, his decision to use the slice backhand looked like a brilliant one. He was able to frustrate Medvedev with his soft defensive shots from that side, before turning around and winning rallies with blistering offensive forehands. If Thiem had gone on to win the match—and he was just one stab volley away—we might be talking now about how much his game has matured, how he’s made himself into a complete player, how he’s ready to challenge the Big 3 in 2021.
But in the end, the slice backhand backfired. Thiem grew so acclimated to it that he couldn’t easily switch back and start driving it again when he needed to. Medvedev challenged him to hit passing shots from that side, and Thiem couldn’t do with his slice. Only at the end, when he was trailing, did Thiem let his topspin backhand fly again, but it was too late.
Last year, Stefanos Tsitsipas nipped Thiem at the wire in the final in London; this time it was Medvedev who found a way to blunt his super-sonic attack. Thiem will still enter 2021 as the most likely player to win a major not named Djokovic or Nadal, but for now Medvedev is the man of the moment. Winning at the O2 obviously doesn’t mean you’re destined for bigger things in the new year: The last three champions were Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Tsitsipas, none of whom owns a major title.
While we can’t say that Medvedev is going to be the best player of the near future, it’s safe to say that he’s going to be the most interesting. Sometimes, watching players bash winners from both sides, you start to think there can be nothing new under the tennis sun—what can stand up to blistering power? Medvedev can, with his blend of variety and consistency; his sudden dashes from the baseline to the net, and then from the net back to the baseline; his crazy-legged speed, and his no-fuss service motion.
Medvedev might not revolutionize tennis, but he’ll add to its possibilities. It’s going to be fun scratching our heads and wondering, “What’s this guy going to do next?”