By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Before they could face each other in person at the Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev had a verbal go at each other, after winning their respective semifinals. It wasn’t sparring in the absolute sense of the word, nor was it was sledging. Rather, it was one’s way of throwing the gauntlet to the other as if each were getting ready for the physical contest with a mental head-start.
“Pressure is always there, it’s what we do. Everyone talks about the new generation coming and taking over us, but realistically that isn’t happening still. We can talk about it all day but with all my respect to the other guys, they still have a lot of work to do. I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them. I’m going to make them work their ass off for that,” the defending champion Djokovic told Eurosport on Thursday after making it through to the final.
His words had reasoning. He had just reached his ninth final at the Australian Open, and as someone who had returned with the trophy on the previous eight occasions he had gotten there, Djokovic wasn’t being overconfident but merely pragmatic in expressing himself.
Equally pragmatic was Medvedev’s reply – about facing Djokovic – when asked in his on-court interview after he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in their semifinal.
“He’s never lost in eight times in the final here. It’s him who has all the pressure. Getting to Roger, Rafa, in the Grand Slams,” said Medvedev, summarizing what was at stake for Djokovic, despite having an 8-0 record in the finals at Melbourne Park.
“So, I just hope I’m going to get out there and show my best tennis. I can beat some big names if I play good. He has, for sure, more experience, but more things to lose than me.”
The latter part of the Russian’s answer, however, has an element of overreach.
Yes, Djokovic stands to gain significantly after winning the title. But if he were to lose it, the ripple effect would get toned down by how men’s tennis’ “Big Three” turnstile would have finally seen a youngster venture past it. However, a Djokovic victory would not only mean the continuation of the existing status quo but also that yet another contender – a NextGen player – had failed to end this long-running challenge.
As such, the task at hand is just as demanding for Medvedev – who enters the final with 20 wins in a row and, in the event of a win on Sunday, could rise to a new career-high of No. 2 in the rankings. This puts both players on relatively equal footing.
This unexpected parity in their current standing aside, there are other variables in play for both players ahead of the match.
For Djokovic – who is still the favorite to win the title – the final is about finding out whether he has hit the saturation point as far as his invincibility at the Australian Open is concerned. Far from being straightforward, the focus of the Serbian’s route through the initial rounds was more on his injury than on his wins. That he preferred to prop up a tower of silence, instead of discussing the topic at length after having initially flagged the problem, stirred the cacophony of outside speculation.
Whether Medvedev – the distinct underdog – can dictate the narrative solely around the match will be – in truest terms – the indicator of the experience the World No. 4 said he gained after his 2019 U.S. Open final against Rafael Nadal.
“I took a lot of experience,” Medvedev had said after reaching the final. “It was my first Grand Slam final against one of the greatest. Sunday will be against one of the other greatest. US Open was a crazy match. We’re going to see Sunday; we can’t know before the match what’s going to happen.”
Indeed, prognostications are never too easy. But upsets do come about, swiveling around the most unexpected pivots.
In 2014, Nick Kyrgios shocked Nadal at Wimbledon in the fourth round. The Australian seemingly came out of nowhere with an irreverent and irrepressible performance to stun the two-time Wimbledon champion.
On 21 February 2021, almost seven years later, at a completely different setting, in a completely different Slam, Medvedev will need to take a leaf out of this book of irreverence and irrepressibleness to pull off another upset. Only this time, both rivals share an acquaintance and familiarity, instead of a first-time professional encounter.