A few times in your career, you get to say “I was there.”
I was there at Twickenham for an England Grand Slam victory over France in 1991. I was there at Indian Wells in 2007 for Novak Djokovic’s first final and entry into the top 10.
I was there at Center Court in Mason, Ohio, when Daniil Medvedev decided “f— it, I’m going long” (or whatever the Russian equivalent is) and began bombing second serves against Novak Djokovic, turning a 0-30 3-3 one-set-down deficit into a thrilling comeback victory in the semifinal.
And I was there for the final the next day, which crowned Medvedev with his first M1000 title – an afternoon of simultaneous promise and peril for the ATP.
One of the journalists here noted that during the semifinal Medvedev had decided he wanted to shorten the points against Djokovic. Goffin is almost as quick around the court as Novak, and therefore… Medvedev decided he was perfectly comfortable lengthening the points, knocking the ball around with Goffin from 4 meters or more behind the baseline and playing out multiple 20+ shot rallies.
This was interesting considering it was a toasty 92 degrees in the stadium, but Medvedev calculated that Goffin didn’t have the finishing artillery of the No. 1 seed. Goffin tried to exploit his opponent’s deep court position with drop shots and angled groundstrokes, but it seemed to me that he was on the wrong end of a math equation: If Medvedev was comfortable splitting extended rallies then he was a favorite to win the quick points.
Apparently TennisTV’s streaming service went down, so I don’t have access to point length stats right now. Medvedev won the overall balance of points 78 to 57, or about 4 to 3; I’m prepared to bet that he was a 2:1 winner of points under 4 shots.
You should check out the Twitter feed of @Vestige_du_jour, a Japanese stats maven: He’s done a lot of work on service strategies, and has demonstrated conclusively that first serve percentage, the most quoted commentator’s statistic, has negligible bearing on match outcomes.
The most important stat is first serve points won.
Medvedev’s experiment of hitting bomb second serves against Djokovic last night (to be fair, also employed by Nick Kyrgios multiple times in the past) just might be the next big thing in ATP tennis. A 2 meter tall player who can serve consistently in the high 120s may well be better off hitting two first serves, and Medvedev’s internal calculator was accurate against Djokovic last night.
From the middle of set 2 he served 9 second serves, hitting 4 aces and 3 DFs, with two balls going back into play (they split points). A 55% winning ratio is better than the 30% he was winning before.
Today Medvedev served for the match at 5-4 and faced a 15-40 score. The next four points went: second serve bomb unreturned, ace, ace, ace. Medvedev lifted his arms to the sky, and slowly walked to the net to shake hands with Goffin.
After the match he told the press that he’d begun cramping all over at the start of the game, and had no idea what he’d have done if the score had gotten to 5-5. He’d just gone for it:
“There’s a Russian saying, “If you don’t risk, you don’t reach champagne, and now I’m drinking champagne.”
The trophy ceremony after the match was held in front of a 90% empty stadium, and this is the thing that foreshadows peril for the ATP. As I said above, it was over 90 degrees in the stadium this afternoon – hot, but not outrageous for Cincinnati at this time of year.
However, the stadium began emptying after the first set tiebreak, and very few spectators came back to their seats. Spectators continued to file out as the second set played out – it would have been something had Goffin actually mounted a comeback and taken the final to a third set in front of a 20% house.
Neither Goffin nor Medvedev are big names among casual tennis fans: the absence of a Federer, Nadal or Djokovic likely contributed to the exodus. The ATP has been eating its seed corn for the last five years, and has to hope some new talents like Medvedev are there for it in the early 2020s. If there aren’t any hands raised when the Big 3 finally do pass the torch half empty stadiums may be the rule rather than the exception.
And that’ll do it for the 2019 Western & Southern Open. I won’t be drinking champagne tonight, but I’ll probably lift a cold one or two. Thanks for reading, if you did.