Daniil Medvedev has won tennis matches in many different ways over the course of his young career, but the 25-year-old probably never imagined closing one out while shuffling around the court like a man four times his age.
Medvedev talked earlier this week in Miami about what you need to do to survive at the pro level: “It’s all about the other small things,” he said, “tactics, strategy, which shot to play at which moment, not cracking under pressure.”
Those words may never have rung as true as they did in his 7-6 (3), 6-7 (7), 6-4 win over Alexei Popyrin on Sunday. After being struck down by debilitating leg cramps while serving at 2-3 in the third set, Medvedev needed all of his guile and all of his willpower to reach the finish line. What started as a limp soon turned into a spasm, and it wasn’t long before Medvedev couldn’t move his feet forward more than a few inches at a time, and couldn’t bend his legs at all. That’s how he spent the last five games of the match, yet he still broke serve and held his own two more times for the win.
“It’s probably one of the sweetest victories in my career,” he said. “It’s difficult to think about victory when you’re cramping. I should have won in two sets and there would not have been cramping.”
He wasn’t wrong about that. An hour earlier, Medvedev had been in total command against his 21-year-old friend and sometime practice partner. The No. 1 seed went into lockdown mode to win the first-set tie-break, broke early in the second set, and served for the match at 5-3. And that’s when everything went haywire. Medvedev had kept Popyrin, who has a rocket of a forehand, bottled up and off balance up to that point. But with his back to the wall, Popyrin finally relaxed, began launching forehand winners, and broke serve at love. Serving at 4-5, Popyrin saved three match points, and he won the second-set tie-break with a rifle-shot forehand on his third set point.
Popyrin had found his range, and finally seemed confident that he could stay with Medvedev through long rallies. What he wasn’t prepared for was Medvedev’s cramps. As Medvedev began to hobble, Popyrin seemed to lose his way tactically. He guided his ground strokes instead of ripping them. He went for too much on his serves and missed them. When he played it safe, he ended up giving Medvedev easy sitters. Popyrin must have known that all he needed to do was make Medvedev move even a few feet, but he couldn’t do it.
As Tennis Channel’s Jim Courier said: On one side of the court, Medvedev was suffering from leg cramps; on the other, Popyrin was having a brain cramp.
Medvedev, meanwhile, knew exactly what he had to do. He went big on first and second serves, and drove his ground strokes deep and down the middle. He didn’t give Popyrin a chance to create angles, or get on the offensive in rallies. In the final game, Popyrin tried to play defense, but ended up floating a slice backhand long. On match point, he tried to guide a backhand into the middle of the court, but it ended up in the net instead. Medvedev hobbled to the net victorious, smiling in disbelief.
Popyrin isn’t the first player to be bamboozled by an ailing opponent, and he won’t be the last. Ironically, the way he was timing the ball early in the third set, he may have stood a better chance of winning against a full-strength Medvedev. While Popyrin couldn’t close, he made his firepower felt in a way he hadn’t since he beat Dominic Thiem at the Australian Open two years ago.
As for Medvedev, he says he has been inspired by taking over the No. 2 ranking for the first time earlier this month, and breathing the kind of rarefied air that’s normally reserved for the Big 3. Today Medvedev played like a man worthy of that air: He couldn’t walk, but he could still win.