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Medvedev d. Tsitsipas is a loud thunderclap

In all sports, not just tennis, familiar opponents — rivals — continuously meet each other each year. Whether teams or individual athletes, sports annually gives us renewals of matchups between competitors who know they have to beat a specific opponent to reach their ultimate goals.

In men’s tennis, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas have begun to play a lot of matches against each other in important tournaments, including the majors. The two men met twice at majors last year. Medvedev won on hardcourts, his better surface. Tsitsipas won on clay, his better surface. Both men held their side of the bargain, so to speak, winning the matches they were expected to win.

This 2022 Australian Open final was different. Though played on hardcourts, it represented role reversal from the 2021 meeting in Melbourne. In that match 11 months ago, Medvedev was fresh as a daisy, cleaning up against a weak draw through five rounds before entering the semifinals. Tsitsipas had just come from two sets down to beat Rafael Nadal in a five-set quarterfinal. Medvedev had circumstances — not just natural talent and skill — on his side. He was fully expected to win, given the arduous nature of playing Rafa in a 5-setter. Tsitsipas lost that match but grew in stature as a result of his win over Nadal.

This year, it was Medvedev who played an extremely long and taxing quarterfinal, while Tsitsipas mowed down Jannik Sinner in three very quick and clinical sets. This match was therefore Tsitsipas’s big chance to score a hardcourt win over the better hardcourt player.

We can all agree that if all other things are equal, Club Med is a superior hardcourt player to Tsitsipas … but in this match, all other things weren’t equal. Stef had the favorable circumstances on his side, unlike February of 2021.

If Tsitsipas had put forth a consistently high standard in this match, and Medvedev had improbably outlasted him or snatched the match away from him, we could still say — unambiguously — that Medvedev is the man of the hour and a growing titan in men’s tennis. Yet, that’s not entirely what happened.

Medvedev certainly showed us that his toughness and resilience are, if anything, still underrated. It was a hugely impressive display by Club Med late in the third set and throughout the fourth set in a demonstration of Daniil dominance. We’re certainly not going to ignore or overlook how great Medvedev’s finishing kick truly was.

Yet, if you’re Stefanos Tsitsipas — owner of a major final appearance and a man who expects to play in big-stage matches for many years to come — this match has to rate as an alarming and worrisome development.

Medvedev on hardcourts is a great player, but after Club Med’s highly taxing fourth round and quarterfinal matches, getting trampled in the fourth set and clearly losing steam as the battle continued could clearly be taken as a sign that Stef’s competitive chops have not evolved since the second set of the Roland Garros final, when he looked every ounce a future major champion.

It has been worth emphasizing ever since that two-set lead slipped away in Paris against Djokovic that not all players who reach a higher level will automatically grow from the achievement. That 2021 French Open was Tsitsipas’s best major tournament by a large margin. He showed maturity and growth. His talents carried him farther in a tournament of significance than ever before.

Many athletes use a moment of improvement as a launching pad. They see how close they have come and they build off a narrow loss in a high-stakes battle to become champions. Some athletes, however, are stung and stunned by their “almost but not quite” moment. The pain of the event reverberates more than the growth points which led up to it. Instead of crossing the threshold, the athlete regresses while his competitors grow in strength.

This is Tsitsipas, measured against Medvedev. It’s a very concerning moment for Stef on so many levels.

Where — and when — will Tsitsipas’s first major title come? Rafa’s back at the French Open. Good luck getting past him and Djokovic. Tsitsipas has never done anything of note at Wimbledon. Medvedev is a hardcourt monster. Tsitsipas looked like a man — in June of 2021 — whose breakthrough was just around the corner. Now? There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Keep in mind that Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Felix, Shapo, and other young risers are all going to gain a year of experience in 2022 while Rafa, Djokovic, and Medvedev (likely) compete for big titles. If Tsitsipas (much like Alexander Zverev) doesn’t win a major this year or in 2023, it could become extremely difficult to win a major in 2024 or beyond, when the slightly younger age group matures and finds its footing.

Yes, Daniil Medvedev is a hardcourt beast. No one would disagree with or minimize that reality. Medvedev’s coping skills are formidable; they have steadily grown. They’re not on the level of the Big 3 because no one is on the level of the Big 3. However, Club Med is closer to the Big 3 in the realm of problem-solving than he is to Tsitsipas and Zverev, two bewildered players who are currently out of ideas in really big moment-of-truth situations at major tennis tournaments. Medvedev carries himself like a champion, whereas Zverev and Tsitsipas shrink when the pressure gets really high.

This leads to the final point worth exploring about the Medvedev-Tsitsipas semifinal: How does this shape the tasty and titanic final between Medvedev and Rafael Nadal?

I would say this much: If Medvedev is able to gather himself physically and play without any noticeable limitations — he has been dealing with some back problems and has played a lot of tennis — he probably rates as a slight favorite, given his hardcourt credentials and the fact that he has younger legs than an aging Nadal. Medvedev can and probably should push Nadal more than Shapovalov and Berrettini did. If Medvedev can do what Shapo and Berrettini could not — win one of the first two sets — Nadal faces the prospect of a much more difficult battle. If Medvedev’s body has enough fuel in the tank, the Russian can probably take the next step he failed to make against Rafa at the 2019 U.S. Open final, which was two and a half years ago. Club Med has clearly evolved a lot since then. If he can take the physical strain of the match, he will probably end up the winner.

However: There’s a line of thought which points to a Nadal win, and it is simply this: What if Friday’s semifinal was more about Tsitsipas wilting than Medvedev rising? What if Tsitsipas is so deeply inside his own head — not only against Medvedev, but against other elite players — in big-stage matches, to the extent that this result in Melbourne is centrally the product of his shortcomings and his lack of belief? If you buy that line of thought, you can very easily conclude that since Nadal doesn’t surrender in the battle of the mind, he can push and probe and parry Medvedev in ways Tsitsipas simply cannot do.

If you think Tsitsipas is a weaker competitor than he was last June (and I do), there is reason to think Nadal can succeed in bothering Medvedev, since he has so many more competitive resources than Stef does at the moment. It’s why I think this match is a toss-up.

Tsitsipas is in many ways the more intriguing figure than Medvedev coming out of this match. We know Medvedev is supremely resourceful. He handled Djokovic and an antagonistic New York crowd at the U.S. Open to win his first major. He has stormed back to a second consecutive Australian Open final. His hardcourt credentials are elite and growing. Medvedev’s formidable and prominent place in major-tournament hardcourt tennis is clear.

It’s Tsitsipas whose place isn’t clear (other than the obvious reality that it’s several notches below Club Med, Rafa, and Djokovic). Did he merely get beaten by a better man who is in a more comfortable competitive groove, or is Stef truly weakening while his competitors get stronger and gain more belief?

The 2022 tennis season will be fascinating for many reasons, this question being one of them. How that question is litigated will provide men’s tennis with one of its most potent and revealing storylines.

Meanwhile, Tsitsipas — though out of the Australian Open and on a plane flight home — will weirdly be a central figure in the upcoming Medvedev-Nadal final. Why? We’ve already said it, albeit indirectly: We don’t know how much this result is a reflection of Tsitsipas, compared to the man who beat him. If it’s more of a reflection on Stef, Nadal has to like his chances against Club Med. If it’s more a reflection of how imposing Medvedev has become on hardcourts, the Russian should then take care of business versus Rafa.

Sunday’s final will affect how we view Friday’s semifinal. Be ready to adjust your opinions as needed.

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