This week, we're highlighting our top five ATP players of the year. Last week, we revealed our Top 5 WTA list. Click here to read each selection.
Notable 2020 Stats
Titles: Nitto ATP Finals, Paris Rolex Masters
Win-loss record: 28-10
Key wins: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev (x2)
When Daniil Medvedev returned to Paris for its ATP Masters 1000 tournament at the start of November, his 2020 season had been underwhelming, at least for his standards.
That’s not to say it was awful: he went 4-1 at the season-opening ATP Cup, his loss in three sets to Novak Djokovic, and he made it back to the semifinals of the US Open shortly after the tours reopened from a five-month shutdown.
But despite coming into the Rolex Paris Masters on a 3-5 stretch, without a title or signature win in 2020, and stated ahead of the tournament, “physically and mentally I feel ready for the end of the season,” Medvedev was clear there was no burnout to speak of.
“I'm ready to fight and ready to show my best,” he added.
The Russian followed through on that declaration, shifting from a player who hadn’t met expectations to ending 2020 as one of the ATP’s standout players. In a complicated season, there was nothing convoluted about what he produced on court. Medvedev went out with a bang, wiping away deficits, using surprise tactics to great effect, keeping his opposition off-balance with bold serving, and rejecting unfavorable head-to-head records.
In Paris-Bercy, Medvedev scored his first Top 10 win in 13 months when he took apart Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals. He then overcame Milos Raonic to set up a final-round showdown with Alexander Zverev, who had won five of the pair’s six previous meetings. The German was halfway to adding another victory, winning the first set, 7-5, but Medvedev was just getting started. As he kept making shot after shot, and upped the ante on the baseline when he felt necessary, Zverev slowly unraveled. By the end, Medvedev slammed the door shut by taking nine of the final 10 games.
“I'm really happy with the final, with the win here, especially my level of game was really top level this week. I think it's not easy for guys to play against me when I play like this,” Medvedev said in press afterwards. “I'm really, yeah, trying to make my opponent crazy.”
His competition would soon find out that Paris was just an amuse-bouche on Medvedev’s menu of crazy cohesive concoctions. For London was where the 24-year-old forked over his Michelin-star dishes.
Twelve months earlier, Medvedev departed The O2 Arena with a stale taste in his mouth after going 0-3 in his event debut. Riding the confidence of his recent head-to-head win, Medvedev dispatched the 2018 champion once again, 6-3, 6-4.
Two days later, a rematch with Djokovic unfolded. Against the tour’s chief returner, Medvedev brought the heat on serve in facing just a single break point. His defensive flair was ever present, too. By incessantly neutralizing rallies and refusing to donate free points, the Russian implored Djokovic to misuse drop shots and slice chips. In his 6-3, 6-3 win, Medvedev finished with a +9 differential in winners to unforced errors, while Djokovic ended exactly opposite at -9.
Another straight-set win over Schwartzman saw Medvedev emerge from the round-robin stage unblemished, setting up a semifinal against Rafael Nadal. Medvedev hadn’t squared off against the left-hander since failing to convert a match point and blowing a 5-1 final-set lead at this very tournament a year earlier; that loss saw Medvedev drop to 0-3 against Nadal.
Medvedev successfully made his first 16 first serves of the rematch, but after letting three break points slip in the early goings, he saw Nadal snatch the opening set. Down a break after double faulting, Nadal soon had the match on his racquet at 6-3, 5-4. He had won 71 consecutive matches after winning the first set, and had his eye on a first-ever ATP Finals title—but the steely Medvedev was out to show why one shouldn't put too much stock in statistics.
Breaking back at love, Medvedev kept plugging away to extend the contest, as Nadal’s decision to carry on with changing speeds proved ineffective. A sneaky charge forward by Medvedev counteracted the Spaniard’s overplayed backhand slice and led to an impressive break for 4-3 in the decider. It was an aggressive move that ultimately propelled the Moscow native to solve the Nadal puzzle for the first time.
“I decided to change some small things, going for it a little bit more,” Medvedev said in an on-court interview. “I felt like I had chances to win before, some games, a set maybe but it didn't work. So I had to change it and it worked really well. I'm happy about it.”
In the championship clash, Medvedev continued to live on the edge—and reverse history. His opponent, Dominic Thiem, held a 3-1 mark in their series and convincingly stopped Medvedev in the US Open semifinals on his way to the title. The Austrian had also been in the same position the year prior in London, finishing runner-up to Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Much like in his match 24 hours earlier, Medvedev found himself playing from behind. Down a set and serving at 3-3, 30-40 in the second, he bravely served and volleyed on a second serve. In truth, it shouldn’t have worked. Completely out of position after hitting an outstretched forehand volley, Medvedev left the ad court wide open. Thiem however, pushed a forehand wide, perhaps initially misjudging which forehand play he’d have on the ball. Medvedev held, and proved to be the stronger player in the second half of the encounter to complete a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory.
There was no falling to his knees or exuberant celebrating despite becoming the first player to beat every member of the ATP’s Top 3 in the history of the tour's season-ending championship. Though he clinched his biggest title to date, it just another day at the office for Medvedev, who simply removed a ball from his pocket, softly tapped it to the back of the court and greeted Thiem at the net.
Mirroring the level of play he delivered to close out the season on a 10-match win streak with seven Top 10 victories, Medvedev’s muted reaction was perfectly on brand: charmingly unexpected, yet ballsy to the core.