Daniil Medvedev sets a rhythm and lives by it

By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

Entering the 2021 Australian Open, Daniil Medvedev carried a lot of weight on his shoulders. He had just attained his career-best ranking – No. 4 – and as a one-time major finalist at that point, was counted as one of the players who could likely go all the way – or at least to the final – blocking Novak Djokovic’s path as the overwhelming pre-tournament favourite.

In those two weeks, Medvedev acquitted himself fairly well, with the results of his performances lasting him in good stead for the full year.

Medvedev did reach last year’s final, building up his intensity like a tornado gathering its force. However, against Djokovic, who is fully seasoned against all kinds of on-court inclement weather, the severity of Medvedev’s game fell drastically short. Despite this, the Russian left Australia with a new career-high ranking of No. 3. A couple of weeks later, he reached a new milestone as the World No. 2. Over the course of the next few months, Medvedev not only cemented his place as the world’s second-best player, but he also gained closure for himself by defeating the Serbian in the final of the U.S. Open to win his first major.

A year on, Medvedev at the 2022 Australian Open has been backed by these realities. On one hand, those facts pad more bulk onto the existing weight on his shoulders. On the other hand, said realities add nuances to the experiences he has gained on the tour so far, including in the previous year.

These two aspects are the tines forming the tuning fork of Medvedev’s career. His results at Melbourne Park are the emerging vibration which resonates for these two weeks, and potentially, for the rest of the season. He is and has been the one player who stands to dethrone Novak Djokovic both literally and figuratively – in terms of numbers, in this context – and gain everything for himself, thus marking a pivotal shift in the dominance that has defined the men’s tour.

After four rounds at Melbourne Park, as the de facto top-seed, Medvedev seems to have cultivated a fine-tuned rhythm for himself with a comfort level that still feels quirky for the onlooker, but is a familiar zone for the 25-year-old to occupy. Every round of his has been like the wildly-swinging celebratory motion he does with his arms. This is true both in terms of how he has dealt with lapses in his game whenever they’ve emerged, and in how he has adapted when playing the opponent in front of him on a given day.  

In the 14 sets Medvedev has played to get to the last eight in Melbourne, he’s had several such slipups in his game. Similarly, each of Medvedev’s opponents, even those he defeated in straight sets, jostled him out of his mental comfort zone before he found his way back and finished the match. The tactical subtleties of how he has gone about doing so on court – against crowd favourite Nick Kyrgios in the second round or against the serve-and-volley aficionado, Maxime Cressy, in the fourth round – have varied. What didn’t change at all was the attitude with which Medvedev approached his matches and greeted his rivals.

These attitudes have ranged from seriousness to respect, to being wry and nonchalant with a little swagger thrown in to make a parody of himself. A smidgen of rudeness coupled with epiphanous apology have completed Medvedev’s on-court persona. These displays have come on the back of the experience he has acquired, albeit of a different sort.

It’s common trope in sports to view a contender as a hero or a villain, or an anti-hero depending on your perspective of the sport and the elite athlete at that particular moment. In tennis, this trope has cast Medvedev first emerging as a villain and then as the anti-hero, the ideal foil to whomever the sport put forth as a hero – be it Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, or even Medvedev’s own age cohort, from Stefanos Tsitsipas to Alexander Zverev and others in between. Now, he is transitioning to a new role as the hero of the sport.

On his part, in the time it has taken him to climb to the upper tier of the sport, Medvedev has learned to present himself in the role that’s assigned to him while playing the game all along. He has exaggerated his villainy even though he has been amenable to the opposite role on occasion. Now, at this juncture, he is also fine being seen as tennis’s person of the hour.

Crucially, it’s not because he doesn’t care about these labels. Rather, it’s because Medvedev cares so much about maintaining the rhythm he has set for himself while shutting out the distractions that threaten to affect and disrupt it. This tunnel vision has enabled him to make more professional breakthroughs.

He is hoping for another in Melbourne.

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