We are just 11 days into the new year, and we have already seen a match which will be a constant reference point for the remainder of the tennis season. How that match will be referenced is something we don’t know, but we DO know this match will continue to be talked about in the tennis community.
In nearly three-hours of lung-busting, scrambling, whatever-it-takes-to-win tennis, Novak Djokovic defeated Daniil Medvedev, 6-4 in the third, to win the ATP Cup semifinal tie for Serbia over Russia, setting up a final with Rafael Nadal and Spain, who defeated Australia in the other semifinal.
A lot like Cincinnati last August, Djokovic made his way rather calmly and smoothly through the first set. The second set began with Djokovic clearly owning the upper hand. Medvedev didn’t seem to have a path to victory with Djokovic serving so well, especially on wide serves to the corners of each box.
Yet, when Djokovic is in trouble, what does he do? He gets an extra ball back. He forces his opponents to be consistent and precise. He focuses on not making errors and putting the onus on his opponent to close the sale.
Though Medvedev is a stylistic unicorn (yeah, the Gilles Simon comparisons are understandable in terms of being willing to hit an extra ball, but they only go so far…), he is like Djokovic in the sense that he forces opponents to play more and relies on his athleticism to buy him extra opportunities to mount comebacks.
In the second game of the second set, with Djokovic up a break, the Serbian legend had game points for a 2-0 lead and a hammer-lock grip on the match. Medvedev was not sensational in that game, but he was persistent, and he did ask questions. Djokovic lost a small but real amount of focus, and after a prolonged struggle, Medvedev broke back.
From then on, this match was a massive struggle. The second and third sets recalled, to an extent, the first two sets of their 2019 Australian Open meeting, before Djokovic pulled away to win in four.
Medvedev has the satisfaction of knowing that the man who roared through the summer and pushed Nadal to five sets at the U.S. Open is still there. Medvedev’s best tennis iteration surfaced long enough against Djokovic to give him the assurance that the Russian can make a run at the Australian Open title and more in 2020.
Djokovic has the even greater satisfaction of knowing that unlike Cincinnati, he found a way to turn the tables, outfoxing Medvedev on a number of outrageously entertaining points, especially a break point at 5-4 in the final set which involved a crazy exchange no more than two feet from the net.
Djokovic won the most important points in an extremely close match, reminding the tennis world of his deserved and enduring status as the toughest man to kill in the sport. Medvedev knows he is in the hunt, but he didn’t hunt down his opponent on Saturday.
We can say without doubt that Djokovic is ready for the Australian Open. The main question facing him — and Rafael Nadal — is if too much tennis has been played over the past week and a half.