At this time of year, I cover American college football in addition to tennis. The American college football season lasts only 12 games. It is contested by 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-, and 22-year-old male members of the human species. It has been volatile. It is volatile. It is going to be volatile. Very young athletes will create fragile competitions laden with plot twists. It has always been thus, and it will remain so.
One of the dynamics of an American college football season which remains eternally difficult for me and other pundits to grasp is this: The nature of a team at the start of the season, when everything is uncertain and these young athletes are trying to find their way, is often very different from the nature of a team in the middle of the season — when stability arrives. The nature of a team in the middle of a season, when stability arrives, is often very different from the end of the season in late November, when the accumulated strain of competition wears down some teams while revealing strength in other teams which survived the middle third of the journey and have a finishing kick to carry them into winter.
Over the course of 12 games, teams reveal many different identities, many different faces. Writers and coaches and a committee of experts all take their turns ranking the top 25 teams each week of the season. In a sport with volatile results, those rankings dramatically change each week.
What happens? A team ranked in the top 10 in early September is unranked at the start of October. A team completely out of the top 25 in early September becomes a top-10 team in October.
The point of all this? Teams can beat opponents which are ranked on that particular afternoon… but cease to be ranked for the rest of the season. Teams can beat opponents which are unranked on a given day, but then become top-five teams at the end of the season.
When evaluating the quality of a specific victory, which matters more? Beating the team which didn’t play well at the time of the competition, but then ripens into a juggernaut, or beating the team which was highly ranked at the time of the competition, but then plummets and becomes mediocre if not awful?
Let’s now transfer those questions to tennis.
That is one of the main themes which emerged on Wednesday at the Shanghai Masters.
Daniil Medvedev did not beat Roger Federer, but he came very close. Medvedev, 22, has been through an erratic season, but in this autumn of the year, he has flashed his finest form, winning Tokyo and going through good, talented players en route to that ATP 500 title. (Oh, what Richard Gasquet would give for even one such championship…)
Medvedev spent much of 2018 being the player who lost close matches and gave opponents crucial boosts to THEIR careers, not his own. Medvedev lost to Sascha Zverev in Miami, a match which began Zverev’s emergence from winter doldrums and catapulted him into a prosperous new spring. Medvedev lost to Kei Nishikori early in Monte Carlo, before Kei then raced to the final of that tournament. Medvedev lost to Hyeon Chung early in Australia, propelling Chung on a run which didn’t stop until the semifinals against Federer.
In Tokyo, however, Medvedev was the man who stopped OTHER runs. He was the closer, the finisher who found the daggers needed to seal impressive victories. He then came to Shanghai, tired but confident, and won a long first-round match he probably would have lost in summer or spring. He then hit 16 winners and committed only three unforced errors in a resplendent second set against Federer in the round of 32. That second-set masterclass included a ridiculous stab backhand volley with enough backspin that it bounced on Federer’s side of the net, then over the net to Medvedev’s own side, before the Swiss had any chance to reach the ball.
Medvedev — pushed deep into a third set by Federer (who knows a thing or 27 about competing in tough situations) — finally flinched at 4-4 on serve and lost 6-4 in the decider. Nevertheless, he leaves China and prepares for the European home stretch of his 2018 season knowing that he can play at a much higher level. He will end this season knowing he has made progress.
He is not the same player he was in summer or spring. He is one of the moving parts on the ATP Tour, just like that American college football team which is completely disorganized at the start of the season but finds itself and stabilizes as the season moves on.
Federer being pushed by Medvedev has a lot more to do with Daniil’s improvement than the status of Federer’s game in 2018. It’s not as though Federer is in a great place right now in terms of form and function — he isn’t (but he’s also not playing rubbish tennis; it just isn’t as good as it was in portions of 2017). Nevertheless, this match was not about Federer’s problems or limitations. He ran into a player who was performing better than ever before. Medvedev in July would have been easy pickings for Federer. This version didn’t figure to be nearly as easy to handle; he wasn’t. That should be easy enough to appreciate.
Medvedev wasn’t the only study in moving parts on Wednesday.
Hyeon Chung, briefly mentioned earlier (as Medvedev’s conqueror in the second round of the 2018 Australian Open), lost to Marco Cecchinato in a three-set cliffhanger. Cecchinato finally won his first main-draw ATP match on a non-clay surface this year, after many failed attempts. To be sure, Cecchinato deserves ample credit and praise for his persistence in scratching out tough wins on a surface which puts him out of his comfort zone. Nevertheless, when recalling the Australian Open and then Indian Wells and Miami, it is hard to place yourself in March of 2018 and imagine that Chung would lose a hardcourt match to someone with Cecchinato’s hardcourt track record at any point in this season.
Yet, it happened.
Chung’s 2018 season was derailed by injuries, so I’m not going to pile on the South Korean here. Nevertheless, it is a plain point of reality that he is not the same player he was at the start of the season. If Medvedev is a case study of slow movement followed by late-season advancements, Chung is precisely the opposite: the player who started quickly out of the blocks and then suffered (physically) as the wear and tear of tennis overpowered him.
Playing Hyeon Chung in early March would have been a rough assignment for most pros. Playing Chung now is a lot more manageable. It is exactly the inverse for playing Daniil Medvedev.
These two players showed on Wednesday in Shanghai that players and seasonal identities do not remain static — not on the ATP Tour, and not in other sports as well.