We know that as a group, French tennis players generally fall victim to ambitious shot selection instead of making the high-percentage play. As a group, American male tennis players suffer because of deficient movement and insufficient quality on their backhands. As a group, Russian tennis players often get down on themselves even when they are in favorable or at least neutral scoreboard situations. This last note leads me to my central observation on Daniil Medvedev after his good-but-could-have-been-better week at the Monte Carlo Masters.
To be sure, it was a good week for Medvedev, who made his first Masters semifinal and defeated Novak Djokovic along the way. Medvedev needs to show he can beat the big boys: check. Medvedev needs to win matches against the top 10: check. Medvedev needs to go deeper into tournaments so that he can crack the top 10 himself: check. Medvedev checked a lot of boxes in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. He took a step forward this week.
But only one step. It could have — and arguably should have — been two.
Medvedev was cleaning up against Dusan Lajovic in Saturday’s semifinal, leading 5-1 in the first set. Medvedev has a higher ceiling than Lajovic — that is not an insult or a particularly controversial statement; it is simply a measure of the talent the two men possess. Medvedev should ordinarily be able to handle Lajovic, and in the first six games of that match from the weekend, he did exactly that.
Credit Lajovic for fighting and persisting and asking all the right questions, to be sure, but Medvedev should not lose a 5-1 lead. He should not lose 10 games in a row. Yet, he did.
He locked up. He froze. He turned a positive situation into a disaster.
Svetlana Kuznetsova and Marat Safin both won two majors apiece, but even then, they often went to negative places in their thought worlds when a match scoreboard gave them no reason to be so negative.
Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina both possessed world-class talent. Obviously, Safina’s career was very lamentably cut short by injuries. Yet, in the several years they had on tour, neither could win a major title. The innergame held them back.
When seeing Medvedev in Monte Carlo and Karen Khachanov in Indian Wells, I am reminded of this pattern in which formidable Russian tennis players get to the doorstep of huge opportunities and then falter.
Khachanov, you will recall, was playing an injured Rafael Nadal in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Nadal had just tweaked his knee, which forced him to give Roger Federer a walkover into the final. Khachanov, had he merely forced a third set, probably would have won the match due to a retirement from Nadal. Rafa had to win the match in straight sets. He very likely would have pulled the plug in a third set or at least not been able to push his body through the set with enough mobility to make a real difference.
This was a time for Khachanov to be calm and serene, focused on the short-term task of finishing the second set, which he led. Instead, he unraveled and became very cranky. Being cranky isn’t necessarily bad, but when it accompanies hijacked performance and leads to a sea of unforced errors, it certainly is.
Khachanov did well in Indian Wells. He improved his season and gained a much-needed result. Yet, it could have — and, one could argue, should have — been better.
Medvedev in Monte Carlo, with the brain freeze against Lajovic, wrote a very similar story.
Khachanov and Medvedev are obviously capable of producing considerable quality. Their main challenge — as is the case for so many other players — is to get out of their own way, to let the mind allow the body to do what it needs to do.
No rush — these Russians need to slow down and find inner calm. That is one of their central tasks as 2019 continues.