Two in-form ATP players in the 2019 season faced each other in the first round of Mutua Madrid Open when the No. 12 seed Daniil Medvedev entered Court 5 to play Guido Pella on Tuesday afternoon. Medvedev has won a lot of matches this season, more than any other player in the ATP. His opponent was, nonetheless, a player who had put more mileage on his legs than he had in the preceding three weeks.
Pella began his European clay-court season on April 14 when he took on Laslo Djere in the first round of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. His 6-2 1-6 6-3 victory 23 days later against Medvedev on Tuesday marked his 12th match during that period. It roughly averages out to one match every other day – every 1.9 days more precisely, but let’s round it out. For good measure, let’s also add the fact that seven of those 11 matches went to a final set.
The above matters to Pella more than most other players, because he is a player who relies more heavily on his footwork and makes it an integral part of his game**. We are certainly not talking about a guy whose preferred course of action is to end points early with mammoth serves and high-octane groundies.
** For those interested, see the first break point on which Guido capitalizes at 2-1 up to see an example of how important a role footwork plays in his game.
Therefore, when Medvedev seemed to turn the match around when he broke Pella’s serve in the second set to go up 3-1, mostly thanks to the first dismal game played by Pella in the match thus far (four unforced errors), and the Argentine began to show signs of weariness, I asked myself if this was a temporary collapse in intensity due to falling behind in the scoreboard, or if it was an endurance issue emanating from the extended hours of competition in the last three weeks. To clarify, the former is always preferable to the latter.
Pella’s game posed a problem for Medvedev from the get-go, in the sense that the Argentine can create angles with his lefty forehand and serve and change the pace at will during rallies. His forehand can carry a heavy bounce while his backhand is flatter, which allowed him to avoid constant-pace rallies in which Medvedev can find a good rhythm and dominate the baseline game. Pella also mixed in a few low and short slices (see the 2-4, 15-30 point in the first set on Daniil’s serve), forcing Medvedev to hit the uncomfortably low two-hander while stretching forward from inside the baseline.
Medvedev, for some reason, started the match returning from far behind the baseline, which gave Pella the opportunity to push him off the court and set up the next shot. I’m not sure what the Russian’s intentions were in doing so, because Pella’s serve is certainly returnable with a closer stance to the baseline. In any case, it was fairly clear that it did not help his cause in the fifth game of the match.
For instance, consider when Medvedev returned from way behind the baseline on the first point of that game. He had to remain there throughout that point, eventually missing a forehand drive to lose the point. He then missed another aggressive forehand return from the same spot to lose the game four points later. Pella held to confirm the break and never looked back. He was also moving well throughout the first set, showing no signs of fatigue from previous weeks.
Another factor that crippled Medvedev’s tactics — this was an issue throughout the match – was his hesitancy in attacking the net when he had short-ball opportunities. Whether it’s a lack of confidence in his net game, or too much respect for Pella’s passing shots, or just bad-decision making, it’s hard to say, but I lean toward the first characterization. A good example is the 30-0 point at 5-2 in the first set when he played a 13-shot rally in which he had three clear opportunities to attack from inside the baseline and chose to shuffle back to the baseline, finally losing the point on another low backhand in the net on another slice by Pella.
Side note: See also the second and third points of the first game, second set, for two more examples of Medvedev’s apprehensiveness about approaching.
Needless to say, for Medvedev to sink his teeth into the match, either he needed to make drastic adjustments or Pella’s game needed to falter. The latter happened at 2-1 on Pella’s serve, which brings me to the point in the match I noted a few paragraphs above. Following the disaster of a game out of nowhere by Pella with four unforced errors, Medvedev reeled off three more games to pocket the second set 6-1. As I noted earlier, Pella was showing signs of slowing down in the footwork department, but it was hard to tell if endurance was the cause or the shift in momentum.
In any case, Pella came out much more aggressive in the third set. I do not have a line of vision into what Pella was thinking at the time, so I am speculating of course, but I believe that Pella, aware of the downside of playing another scrappy, extended match, made a conscious decision to force the issue more than he would otherwise prefer to do.
He began to make frequent appearances at the net and show a willingness to approach, unlike his opponent, when given the chance. He pumped his fist when he won the first game on a serve-and-volley effort with an overhead to hold. He held again at 1-1, with another fist-pump after another overhead at the net.
While Pella showed the willingness and grit to modify his game, even at the cost of compromising his A-game, Medvedev was sticking with what worked and did not work, playing the same game and patterns he started the match with. It is almost as if he was relying on another bad serving game by Pella or waiting for Pella to run out of steam… and he was still hesitating.
Pella held to go up 3-2 on another 12-shot rally that saw Daniil pass up two opportunities to attack and finally lose the point on a forehand error, which he made after a counter-punch acceleration by Guido (the Russian blamed the court for a bad bounce).
Then, at 2-3, 40-15 on his serve, Medvedev’s game collapsed. He made two routine errors (the forehand sitter missed at 40-30 was a shocking error by his standards) and missed another forehand error to find himself a break point down. He saved it with a first serve but did not save the second break point he faced a point later when he missed again the exact same forehand – yes, that shocking one – as he did three points earlier.
Pella, now up a break in the third and reenergized, kept on pressing Medvedev. The Russian’s body language took a bit of a negative turn at that point. It would have been tempting for Pella to fall back on his A-game, the one he utilized in the first set he handily won.
He did not.
He continued to not only attack the net when he got the chance, but also take risks during baseline rallies, keeping Medvedev off balance. Consider the ensuing game at 4-2. Pella won the 15-15 point at the net, won another rally he dominated at deuce with a forehand winner, and capped the game with a dandy of a rally in which he displayed his versatility by mixing in loopy topspin shots, inside-out backhand slices, and flat accelerations, eventually forcing Medvedev into an error.
Two games later, Pella approached the net one last time to shake his opponent’s hand. It was a thoroughly earned victory on his part, and frankly, hats off to the Argentine, who aptly used his on-court IQ to topple a strong opponent. In simple terms, the difference was Guido’s willingness to adapt to circumstances versus Medvedev’s unwillingness to do so, for all the reasons I listed above.
Daniil is still young at 23, almost six years younger than Pella, who is turning 29 next week. The Argentine carries more experience on his racket, including a crisis period in his career when he was less than a year older than the Russian is currently. In that period, he did not feel like playing tennis for almost three months because, by his words to me in 2015, “I was losing my mind completely, I didn’t want to play anymore.”
One way or another, from all that took place in this match of 1 hour and 44 minutes, that difference of almost six years was a determining factor in the outcome. Pella will face Stan Wawrinka in the next round in – and forgive me that I feel the need to mention this again – his 13th match in 24 days.