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Daniil Medvedev and the centrality of timing

Matt Zemek

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Dan Hamilton - USA TODAY Sports

It is not entirely accurate to say that Daniil Medvedev lacks a sense of timing. He did make the round of 16 at the Australian Open, playing Novak Djokovic well in a contentious match before the World No. 1 overtook him in sets three and four. It is true that Medvedev played quality tennis at a hugely important tournament in 2019.

Yet, that tournament might be viewed as the exception and not the rule.

After losing a two-set lead to Pierre-Hugues Herbert on Monday at Roland Garros, Medvedev is left to contemplate — as he prepares for grass — a season in which he has thrived in the “down” sequences of the calendar.

That statement might be self-evident to many who will read it, but for those who don’t see the meaning in the words — which is perfectly understandable — let me briefly unpack it:

There are peak seasons and down seasons in almost every sport, “high tide and low tide,” if you will. American football doesn’t involve a “down season” or a “low tide,” because American football seasons are very brief: 16 games for the professionals, 12 for college athletes. Any losing streak of two or three games in American football is crucial, if not fatal.

In most sports, though, it is generally understood that there are times when teams or athletes need to be at their best, and times when they just need to survive (team sports) or can afford to be less than elite (solo-athlete sports such as tennis and golf).

In tennis, the top players try to be at their best at the majors and play well in the tier of events just below the majors: Masters 1000s for the men, Premier Mandatories for the women. The second-tier events just before the majors are often — if not always — viewed as the occasions when a player needs to build up a level of form and initiate a process of improvement which continues through the subsequent major tournament.

In the clay season, then, it is especially important to do well in Madrid or Rome and carry an upward trajectory into Paris for Roland Garros. In the hardcourt season, it is important to do well in either Canada or Cincinnati and carry that form to New York for the U.S. Open.

Those are the high-tide portions of the season, plus the Indian Wells-Miami Sunshine Swing. One could also argue that the Wuhan-Beijing (WTA) and Shanghai-Basel/Vienna-Bercy stretch (ATP) fit in the same box, but that is late-season tennis, when all the majors are done and bodies are tired.

The ramp-up periods before the majors and the IW-Miami pair are the widely accepted times of year when tennis players try to improve and thrive. It’s not that improvement is irrelevant or meaningless in the “down times” or low tides on the calendar, but for top players, there is a recognition of the times when peak performance is especially needed or valuable (or both).

Viewed through this larger architecture, Daniil Medvedev has done the opposite of thriving and improving at the high-tide portions of the 2019 season. He has been better in the low-tide portions: early February, when he stacked together a lot of wins; and then April, when players are transitioning from hardcourts and Roland Garros is still a month away.

In the high-tide parts of the calendar — the IW-Miami swing in March, then the month of May and the Madrid-Rome-Paris sequence — Medvedev won a grand total of three matches: one in Indian Wells, two in Miami, none since. He did play well in Australia, as noted above, but as I hastened to mention, that is the exception which proves the rule in Medvedev’s 2019 season to date.

Yes, this is a small sample size of results.

Yes, Medvedev is still relatively young and not in the latter half of his 20-something years. Nikoloz Basilashvili is 27 years old. His inconsistent season is therefore much more troubling than this past month from Medvedev, if we are to compare the severity of these two players’ struggles.

Yes, Medvedev could use his experiences this season to find a higher level of stability and growth in 2020 and beyond. All of this could be part of a larger story of transformation and improvement in the long run.

Yet… it is worth noting in the present tense how Medvedev has pounced in the low-tide parts of the tennis season and then gotten punched in the mouth in the high-tide sections of the calendar.

This is certainly something the Russian will have to rectify if he is to move into the top tier of the ATP Tour.

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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