Daniil Medvedev had been consistent at Roland Garros. He’d lost every first-round match he’d ever played there: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020. Not such a great record to drag around, especially when, in March this year, he’d moved up to number two in the world, which meant he’d be seeded No. 2 in Paris, a disconcerting place to land in this Grand Slam draw because 13-time champion Rafael Nadal was displaced. Nonetheless, Medvedev has continued to win in Paris, defeating American Riley Opelka Friday in the third round. This win means Medvedev has advanced to the second week of the major he has always written off because, well, he just didn’t like red clay. “Honestly, there is nothing I like about red clay,” he said, Reuters reported in March. So what happened?
Perhaps the lofty ranking matured Medvedev, meaning he better act his ranking the way a parent might tell a teen to “act your age” or “you’re not a kid anymore so grow up.” However, Medvedev is 25, has been on tour seven years, and has 10 titles. They were all won at hard-court events but never mind. He collected those trophies and steadily moved up the rankings over a period when no one could replace those top guys — Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray – at number one and two in the ATP Rankings. In fact Medvedev is the first man to be ranked in the top two in 16 years. It’s hard, if not impossible, to name another sport that has consistently been a lockout against all competitors other than a select three of four. Tiger Woods won 15 majors between 1997 and 2008, perhaps coming closest in similarity to what the Big Four accomplished before Medvedev brought change, a word rarely used in men’s tennis.
After Medvedev’s first-round match this week, his maiden win in Paris, he tweeted, “History made.” He seemed to like the conditions, maybe because they felt somewhat like a hardcourt with sun and warm temperatures drying the red clay. “I like the conditions here so far, and looking forward to making a great tournament, to be honest,” he said, reported Roland Garros. This contrasts with, “There’s always bad bounces, you’re dirty after playing,” as Reuters had written a couple days prior. Medvedev admitted he liked the harder yet lighter tennis balls, too, which he said go “faster in the air” and are better controlled by his style of hitting, where topspin helps keep the ball in the court, a technique he relies on for his game to be successful. “I can play like a hard court,” he said, according to the tournament’s website. “It doesn’t feel different than [the] Australian Open for me.” Although Medvedev lost to Djokovic in the Melbourne final, the Russian’s second Grand Slam final, the finalist showing accelerated his rise to number two and came on the heels of a 20-match winning streak where he won the Masters 1000 in Paris and the ATP Tour Finals in London, scoring wins over both Nadal and Djokovic.
After taking out a hot Alexander Bublik in round one, Medvedev moved on to beat American Tommy Paul and, Friday, Opelka in round three: 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. In fact, Medvedev hit twice as many aces as the six-foot-eleven American. Medvedev won 89% of first serves in and 60% on second serves in, a dominating set of stats. His winners to unforced errors, 28 to 16, illustrated his ability to offensively dominate an opponent, which is not unusual, but not just on clay.
Medvedev also mentioned that he was “sliding well,” but viewers could challenge that characterization. Over several points against Opelka, Medvedev moved exactly as he would on a hard court with a couple shorter slides after connecting with a groundstroke, certainly not ideal technique. He also lost his balance a few times while changing direction, which will hinder his ability to beat better players and clay-courters next week when he could play Stefanos Tsitsipas (No. 5) or John Isner, speaking of tall Americans who serve lights out, yet definitely is not a clay-courter, or Christian Garin who he beat in Madrid, or Pablo Carreno Busta (No. 12), who has quietly advanced to week two, as well, and finally perhaps Alexander Zverev (No. 6) in the semifinal.
Medvedev’s success has changed his outlook and attitude about the terre battue of Paris. And a happy “Meddie,” as he is sometimes called, “likes the things he’s good at,” the tournament reported Friday.
“The beliefs, they can change,” he continued. “When I was young I never at fish, like I hated it. Now I love tuna, but raw tuna.” He added that he doesn’t do well at anything he “hates.”
The ultimate test for any player at Roland Garros would be defeating Nadal in the final. The possibility exists, of course. But just as Djokovic dominated Medvedev in the Australian Open final, Nadal could dominate Medvedev in a Roland Garros final while seeking an otherworldly 14th Coupe des Mousquetaires, but only after, that is, if the Spaniard defeats Djokovic in the probable top-half semifinal. Nonetheless, according to the ATP, the Russian could rise to number one in the world, following Paris. “If Medvedev reaches the final and Djokovic does not make the championship match, the Russian will become the first player outside the Big Four [musketeers] – Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray – to reach number one since Andy Roddick in 2003.”
Talk about change in men’s tennis … that’d speak volumes.