Daniil Medvedev had overpowered Novak Djokovic in the US Open final barely two months back. A dejected Djoker had proceeded on a long break to rejuvenate himself, and has returned with renewed resolve to finish the Year End as the Number One for a record Seventh time. This target was achieved after a hard-fought semi-final win over Hurkacz. In a way, the Paris final was to be the first match in a long, long time when Novak was under no pressure to maintain some streak, chase Rafa-Roger or fight for his ranking. But Greatest of All Times do not get to enjoy small luxuries that lesser mortals take in their stride. A new rivalry is booming and the final was touted as the tenth time when they squared up against each other. The duo had played two Slam finals in 2021, and had shared the honours between them. Paris promised to provide a peek into the future of Novak-Daniil match-ups.
The first game brought back painful memories of the September’s Flushing Meadows heartbreak. Novak quickly went down 0-40 on his serve, and although he was able to save two break points, yet found net on the third, and was broken. Six unforced errors in the first two games showed that Number One was nervous. But he still broke back Medvedev in the sixth game, although was promptly broken in the next one to hand back the advantage to the Russian. Daniil played with a lot of conviction, and served out the first set, which seemed like an extension of the US Open final (another 6-4, after 6-4/6-4/6-4 on Sept 12th)
By now, the fear of the dreaded bear had firmly gripped the fanboy inside me. The GOAT, meanwhile, had fresh ideas to implement. Novak began rushing towards the net more frequently and decisively. His serves became wider, less venomous, but more accurate. Meddy was standing too far outside the baseline to hit effective early passing shots on his returns. The tide began to turn, Medvedev was broken and Djokovic rushed to a lead of 5-3. Serving for the set, the Serb found himself struggling against a resurgent Russian. But he dug deep, saved three break points and managed to send the Masters’ Final into the decider.
By the third set, Djokovic‘s unsettling tactics of serving and volleying, sticking to down-the-line backhands ( to avoid backhand duels) and mixing his game to upset Daniil’s rhythm had succeeded. Meddy got broken in the fifth game, despite leading by 40-15. Nole broke him again for insurance in the seventh game to lead by 5-2, but failed to serve out the match. Medvedev, uncharacteristically inaccurate, twice hit the ball long in the ninth game to be broken again, thereby losing the set, and the match.
Did Novak’s Serve and Volley tactics turn the tide? He won 27/36 points at the net, Meddy won only 9/13. Novak’s efforts to keep the points shorter bore fruit- Novak led 54-34 in rallies below 5 shots (Medvedev dominates in longer rallies now). Novak’s overhead smashes looked much crispier, and lobs more assured in Paris. The serve has improved in precision. Controlled down-the-line backhands forced Meddy to hit forehands more often. Although Daniil’s forehand bullets now rush past like terminators, yet there is some issue with their accuracy. He ended up hitting 38 unforced errors, and lost control of the match.
Yet the Final also clearly demonstrated how much has Medvedev progressed in pure tennis terms. His accurate serves, reliable backhand and resolve to reach every ball have already earned him a Slam, one WTF and four Masters, and have taken him to Number Two in the world rankings. Now his forehand has also gained in edge and has become a weapon of defense as well, drop shots look vastly improved and fitness and speed are as good as anyone in the business. Djokovic has acknowledged the all-round quality of Daniil’s game, and has dubbed him as the leader of the next generation, and the future Number One.
Novak now leads 6-4 in their head-to-head matches, 2-1 in the finals. There is still the Year End Nitto ATP Championships to be played in the next week. With Rafa-Roger-Andy not in the reckoning and the Year End Number One already decided, the WTF has lost some of its contextual edge. But Meddy V Nole might still provide some fireworks, although whatever happens it won’t be a fair indicator of shape of things to come at the Australian Open. Not just Paris, but hard courts have generally become slower in the last few years. Don’t know if Meddy shall gain on Clay with this experience of the slow hard courts, but he has often questioned this slowing-up by design. Would a faster Paris court have favoured Medvedev over Novak? Novak is a much better clay player than Daniil. Melbourne Park is, for sure, much faster, but Djokovic also enjoys the greatest record there. (Anyway, there is a lot of vaccine politics still to be played before the AO 2022 gets underway)
The problem that legendary players face is that every victory of theirs gets submerged in records and statistics, and overshadowed by various contexts. Paris 2021 is Novak’s 37th Masters, and he now leads Rafa’s tally by one. He has surpassed Pete Sampras’ record of 6 Year- End top finishes, and now stands alone at the apex with Seven Number One Year-End finishes. He has already been Number One for 346 weeks, and looks good for at least 12-13 more till the end of the Australian Open. Although this was his sixth victory at Paris Masters, yet this is the first time when he holds both the Roland Garros and Bercy Paris simultaneously. Only Ilie Nastase (1973) and Andre Agassi (1999) had earlier held both these trophies at the same time.
More than these records, this victory over Medvedev is important because it dispels doubts and clears clouds of despair that had accumulated after the US Open final. The Serbian is willing to experiment and evolve, and seems eager to take the Russian challenge head-on. And yet he talks about his Challenger like a Tennis Statesman would. In fact the duo sparred together before the tournament began and have opened a sort of mutual admiration club. With this title, Novak Djokovic offers hope to his fans, and shows middle finger to his detractors. Tennis is the winner as this newest rivalry at the top gets further intensified.
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