Final Preview—Is Daniil Medvedev, not Novak Djokovic, the man to beat?

Final Preview—Is Daniil Medvedev, not Novak Djokovic, the man to beat?

The eight-time Australian Open champion says so—at least outwardly—about the Russian riding a 20-match win streak.

“He’s the man to beat.”

If you had to guess which of the two men’s finalists said this about the other, you’d probably say it was a show of respect from Daniil Medvedev to Novak Djokovic, right? Djokovic is the world No. 1, he’s the eight-time Australian Open champion, and he’s never lost a final in Rod Laver Arena.

But you would be wrong. It was Djokovic who paid that tribute, twice, to Medvedev in his post-semifinal press conference two days ago. And that was before he was sure he would face him in the final. Djokovic isn’t wrong: Medvedev is the man to beat, or to try and fail to beat, on the ATP tour right now. He’s won 20 straight matches dating back to last October. Perhaps more impressively, he’s won his last 12 against Top 10 opponents. Only the Big 3 have had longer winning streaks against elite competition.

“He ended out the season best possible fashion,” Djokovic said of Medvedev. “I mean, winning quite comfortable, actually, against top players, against myself in straight sets in London, and he just has improved a lot.”

As Djokovic mentioned, one of Medvedev’s 20 wins came against the Serb at the ATP Finals, a tournament that the Russian won for the biggest title of his career to date. In fact, Medvedev has won three of his last four meetings against Djokovic, the two most recent on Djokovic’s favorite surface, hard courts.

Medvedev is riding a 20-match win streak against top-shelf competition. (Getty Images)

How has he done it? Essentially, by out-Djokoviching Djokovic. When Djokovic is patient, Medvedev is more patient. When Djokovic attacks the net, Medvedev has his passing shots ready. If the match gets tight or he gets nervous, Medvedev has his serve to fall back on. From a speed and accuracy standpoint, Medvedev is one of the few guys who has ever been a match for Djokovic.

“He has a big serve,” Djokovic said. “For a tall guy, he moves extremely well. Forehand maybe was his weaker shot, but he has improved that as well. Backhand is as good as it gets. He’s so solid. He doesn’t give you much.”

Sounds a little like Djokovic himself, right?

“I like to play against Novak,” Medvedev said in his own post-semi presser. “We have, since the first one when I was ranked No. 60, we had always tough matches physically, mentally.”

“Playing final against him is superb. I’m really happy about it.”

Both men should be at full strength physically. Each won his semifinal in straight sets, and while Djokovic had an abdominal injury earlier in the tournament, he says he didn’t feel effects from it in his last match. But Grand Slam finals are about more than forehands and backhands, or legs and muscles. They’re also a delicate dance of confidence and nerves. Who will have the upper hand in that regard, the player going for his first major title, or the player going for his 18th, and trying hard to catch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20?

Since 2011, Djokovic is 63-3 at the Australian Open. (Getty)

“For sure when we get out there we both feel pressure,” Medvedev said. “I want to win my first one. He wants to win No. 18. We don't know for who the crowd is going to be. It’s all the small details. I think if we talk in general, well, I have nothing to lose, to be honest.”

Medvedev may have less to lose than Djokovic to start, but that will change quickly if he builds a lead. Just ask Dominic Thiem. Last year he was in Medvedev’s position. He came into the Aussie Open final against Djokovic with momentum, having beaten Nadal in the quarters. When Thiem went up two sets to one on Djokovic, his breakthrough seemed to be at hand. Until Djokovic won the last two sets, that is. Medvedev generally holds up well under pressure, and knows how to close, but he did have a hiccup in his semifinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas. Up two sets and a break, Medvedev let himself get agitated and gave the break back.

If this final were going to be played on any other court or in any other round I would probably pick Medvedev. To steal a phrase from a beer commercial, he’s the Most Interesting Tennis Player in the World at the moment. But this is what Djokovic does Down Under. He takes the guy who is a on a roll and stops his toll. In 2019, Nadal came into the final looking invincible, and left a straight-set loser. In 2020, it was Thiem who got the Djoker treatment. Twenty straight wins is an impressive run, but 8-0 in Australian Open finals is a lifetime’s work.

Winner: Djokovic