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The lesson of Daniil Medvedev

Matt Zemek

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Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

Winning a Masters 1000 title and going through Novak Djokovic to do it will raise eyebrows in the tennis community. Daniil Medvedev has certainly changed the conversation in men’s tennis… but now comes the bigger question: Can Medvedev maintain this conversation?

Was this a three-week magic carpet ride of summer hardcourt tennis, punctuated by a title in Cincinnati, or is this merely the start of a true ascendance to the very top tier of the sport?

I don’t have a strong opinion on this matter. I can say that Medvedev has forced those who comment on tennis in a professional capacity to reassess his career and its possibilities.

How could any regular observer of men’s tennis NOT reconsider Medvedev’s career at this point?

Everyone could see what happened on Saturday against Djokovic: Medvedev ditched his Gilles Simon style of tennis and adopted the Nick Kyrgios style manual. A player known for his love of long, attritional rallies put on a completely different set of clothes… and was very comfortable in the new threads.

Medvedev went from conservative to liberated, from the running man to the hammer man, from the long and winding road to the fast lane. He adopted a completely different identity and pulled it off.

It was as bold as it was surprising. It was as transformative as it was improbable.

Ultimately, this was a seismic moment, a before-and-after marker by which we assess how an athlete handles an entirely new world.

Everyone in the ATP locker room has surely taken notice of what Daniil Medvedev did. This doesn’t mean all — or even most — players are going to start following Medvedev’s Kyrgios-like example of the two first serves. Yet, the fuller lesson of Medvedev’s triumph over Djokovic and his Cincinnati title is impossible to ignore: Be bold against the Big 3 — not just in attitude or demeanor, but in one’s playing style and situational approach to points.

How many times have we said it? Don’t settle for the slow death in a relatively routine 6-4 set in which you don’t take many chances and eventually get worn down. Go for broke.

It might mean that you’ll lose a 6-1 set, but if an aggressive approach works, you can actually WIN.

American college football season is about to start. I have written about that sport since the year 2000 and will do so again this year. One aspect of American football coaches which has endured into 2019 is the obsession with not wanting to lose too severely on the scoreboard.

Most American football coaches — chiefly when their teams are big underdogs — would rather lose 27-10 with a conservative game plan than lose 59-7 with an aggressive game plan.

Yes, it is true that if a decided underdog takes lots of big chances and fails, that underdog will get destroyed. Taking fewer chances will almost always make a loss a lot closer and more respectable.

Yet, the object of competition is not to lose by a respectably close margin. The object is to WIN.

Playing to win as an underdog means risking humiliation if the plan fails. Yet, any competitor should be willing to risk that humiliation. Playing it safe doesn’t increase the odds of victory; it merely increases the odds that a loss will be by a smaller amount of games or points.

Daniil Medvedev could have double-faulted on those red-lined second serves midway through the second set, and lost in straights. The point is not so much that he successfully hit those second serves; the real lesson of his win is that he wasn’t going to meekly accept losing with the same old, tired approach.

If he was going to lose, he was going to lose taking big swings.

Are you paying attention, Alexander Zverev?

It was — in retrospect — the most misleading result of the 2018 men’s tennis season: the very last match of that season. Alexander Zverev beat Novak Djokovic in the ATP Finals championship match by waiting out the Serb in baseline slugfests.

If Andrey Rublev out-Federered Roger Federer in Cincy with quick-strike tennis played extremely well, Zverev out-Djokoviced Djokovic in the O2 Arena.

How could one leave that Djokovic-Zverev match and think that Alexander needed to shorten points to win matches? It was easy to believe that Zverev could become the next exemplar of attritional baseline tennis, one of the hallmarks Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have brought to this era.

The 2019 season has clearly shown that Zverev’s best long-term interests cannot follow or replicate his 2018 ATP Finals blueprint. He has to be willing to put on the new clothes Medvedev donned in Ohio.

Will Daniil Medvedev’s methods endure and lead to more prosperity? I don’t know.

The question itself, however, contains a legitimacy which speaks to Medvedev’s newfound level of relevance and centrality on tour, which marks an achievement on its own terms.

The non-Big 3 ATP Tour has to wrestle with that reality. We will see how the U.S. Open reveals the thought processes and responses of dozens of top male tennis players.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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