After the cold, damp French Open of the previous year, the sunny edition of 2021 is quite a welcome change. Sun is out in its full glory, terre battue are well-baked and harder (and faster than Rome and Madrid) and balls are lighter. Low bounce and fast pace plays almost like hard courts. These factors have made Daniil Medvedev smile, whose wit and humour, in turn, has left the Parisians laughing, clapping and cheering for him- Daan-iill, Daan-iill, Daan-iill!
And why should he not enjoy his moment under the bright sun?
The Russian bear is set to become the World Number One if he enters the final, and Djokovic doesn’t. If they both do, the Serb would have to beat the Russian to keep his nose ahead. Rafa stands in Novak’s way. That path is thus blocked by the biggest boulder imaginable. Meddy’s fortune is in his own hands. Come Monday, we might have a Slam-less Numero Uno, followed by 18 and 20 Slam winners, current AO and FO holders at Number 2 and 3. This has turned out to be quite a fruitful outing for Medvedev, whose second seed over Rafa’s third had become a subject of wide criticism and ridicule.
Not without reason, of course. After all, Medvedev had been 0-4 at the previous French Opens. He was 1-2 on Clay this year, with poor showings at Madrid and Rome. “I hate clay”, he had often screamed, and joked about winning his first Roland Garros match by 2050. In four matches that he has won so far this year, he has lost just one set, and in 12 sets he has won, he has not even been stretched to a tiebreaker. That is some kind of dominance! Meddy is ready for this third Slam final (if not his first win, considering RAFA is supposed to win this till 2030 at the very least), and his body language and attitude are looking first rate.
But for him to reach the final, he has to first overcome Stefanos Tsitsipas in the QF and Sascha Zverev (or Fokina) in the semis. Both of them, along with Rafa and Novak, are rated among the best players on clay. Sascha won the Matua Madrid Masters where he beat Rafa, then lost to him at Rome. 3 out of Sascha’s 4 Masters have come on clay- Madrid(twice) and Rome. Tsitsipas, on the other hand, is enjoying a dream season – 37 tour wins, 20 on clay – leads the yearly points race to TurinWTF, won his first Masters at Monte Carlo, won Lyon and played a tightly contested final against Nadal at Barcelona. Tsitsipas played a five-set semifinal against Djokovic at Roland Garros last year, and then very nearly defeated him at Rome this year. He also reached the AO last four in 2021, overpowering Rafa in a marathon five-setter.
Then who stopped the Greek at Melbourne?
His arch enemy, a player whose playing style he finds boring but who has defeated him six times in seven matches they have played – current Number Two, Daniil Medvedev.
The Russian and the Greek have had bitter arguments in the past, and seem to resent each other. Meddy Bear once lost his nuts over a toilet break availed by Tsitsipas, who on his return hit one touching the net, refused to apologize for the ‘let’, and made some mean comment to go along with it. The Russian went berserk, gave Stef a verbal bashing, and had to be literally restrained.
Stef finds the Russian style of play as boring- someone who serves big (and Stef concedes Meddy’s serves have become better), and keeps returning everything back from behind the baseline. This, the Greek made known in a press conference. “No one takes him seriously”, retorted Medvedev, when asked for his views on the Greek, “not after he declared that he was forced to drink after the Lavers’ Cup celebrations.”
“Every player can say something nasty about another player. If it has to be trash talk, it will be trash talk,” declared Daniil. Medvedev won the first five matches they played against each other. Then the Greek won at the Nitto WTF in 2019, but Medvedev thrashed Tsitsipas in AO SF 2021 in straight sets. “I don’t hate him,” Tsitsipas later clarified, “but we don’t get along well.” Medvedev has taken the ‘boring’ jibe to his heart, and does not aim to get over this slight. Maybe it serves to motivate him.
The point being that there is no love lost between Medvedev and Tsitsipas, hence the QF promises to be a high octane contest. Tsitsipas might be a better clay player, and is enjoying a red-hot season, but Meddy has the Top ranking in sight and is mentally much stronger. Both serve big, but Tsitsipas is not a regular acer (6 aces to Daniil’s 14 in R4), nor is he impossible to return to. Both have lost just a set apiece in this French Open so far. Stefanos does not possess any specific non-negotiable shot that might bleed the Russian dry. In fact, his single-handed backhand may prove to be the Achilles’ heel that Medvedev might be looking at.
Daniil’s defence is solid and predictable. His flat accurate double-handed backhands fall deep and keep low, and his forehands are remarkably flat and rapier–like. The backhands might not be spectacular, but they do not allow his opponents to gain any swinging room. His opponents find that they have run into a ‘wall’ which returns everything that is hurled at it, and doesn’t yield an inch of advantage. Added to this, he shoots his first serves in the north of 130 mph and with remarkable efficiency. Against better players and in adverse conditions, Daniil starts firing in his second serves at more than 125mp, and that is when he gets very dangerous. That apart, the capability to channelize his anger, and improvise, gives him the edge. Madvedev still blows hot and cold, but does not let that affect his game. He has been remarkably composed in this tournament so far. His inside-out forehand has become more venomous and backhands have become more reliable over the last couple of years. Fitness is admittedly better, although he did face some abdominal issues during Rome. Meddy is an autopilot mode- serving like a dream, reaching every ball, hitting most accurate shots with proper swing, hardly making unforced errors and coming up with spectacular winners when required.
Incidentally, this is also now Tsitsipas has claimed to be feeling and playing – thinking less, and performing in the automatic mode. The two challengers have stuck to the basics, and their process, and results have accrued. Now one of them shall reach the SF. I look forward to this contest between future Number Ones far more eagerly than Nadalovic’s potential SF clash, whose outcome is more or less known. Medvedev versus Tsitsipas might depend on two factors- the ability of Tsitsipas to return Meddy’s bombers, and to force his forehand upon Meddy’s. But if backhands come more into play, it is the Russian who’s gonna prevail.
My vote- I see Daniil winning this one. He seems to be in that zone where his serves and backhands might become too handful for the Greek.
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