Daniil Medvedev is looking forward to a holiday – but not yet. The world No 2 has work to do first.
Medvedev has played as many matches as most of his rivals this season and was one of only five top-10 players to travel to Tokyo for the Olympic Games. He admits the schedule, along with Covid-19 restrictions, has been difficult at times – “tough for the body and the head” – and he is planning a “vacation” after the US Open. But he has reason to feel fresh at the moment. Winning can do that.
Medvedev claimed the fourth Masters of his career last week at the National Bank Open in Toronto and will be aiming for back-to-back tournament wins at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Then it’s on to New York, where Medvedev will be aiming for his first Grand Slam title and should be one of the favourites to rival Novak Djokovic.
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Hard courts are Medvedev’s strengths. All but one of his 12 titles has been won on the surface and his two Grand Slam final defeats – at the US Open in 2019 and the Australian Open earlier this year – were also on hard courts. After disappointing results at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, this is Medvedev’s time of year. And he has shown signs that he is on top of his game ahead of the US Open.
Once described as a “chess master” by John McEnroe, Medvedev clearly thinks a lot about his game and his opponent. That was evident in the final of the National Bank Open against big-serving Reilly Opelka. Medvedev stood way back in the court to return serve – and it worked. Having averaged nearly 18 aces a match in 2021, Opelka managed just eight against Medvedev and was broken early in the match with an outrageous return winner from near the back fence.
“Medvedev is [one of the] top three best returners in the world,” said Opelka afterwards.
“I'd say especially for a big guy, maybe he's No 2 behind Novak [Djokovic] for [returning to] a server like myself, because he's long.
“He can afford to stand far back because he's lanky. He has a really long reach. He's got a good wingspan…Yeah, and he's fast. He's a good athlete…As fast as he is he's able to get out of the corners quick, he's able to play deep back in the corner to me. Yeah, it's tough. There's not many answers when he's on like he was today.”
Returning so deep wouldn’t work for everyone, but Medvedev has the range to reach most balls and the power to hit it back past his opponent. It’s a tactic that has clearly paid off for him – prior to last week’s tournament he had broken serve more times on hard courts this year than any other player on the ATP Tour.
“It's hard to disrupt him, hard to hurt him, hard to really hurt him,” reflected Opelka.
Not only is Medvedev a thinker, but he’s a learner too. After losing to Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open earlier this year he was quickly turning over in his mind how he could do better next time - “I don't know what I'm going to do differently, but for sure I'm going to try to do something differently.” It’s a trait that Andy Murray, one of the smartest players on the court, appreciates when watching Medvedev.
“I think he’s a very interesting player who has got lots of variety and has an awkward-looking game. But he’s very intelligent on the court and that’s what I like to see. I like people who are thinking out there.”
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Whether Medvedev can turn the tables on Djokovic if they meet in New York remains to be seen, but he looks the best positioned – and possibly the best prepared - to challenge the world No 1. Djokovic will head to the final Grand Slam of the year having not played since the painful end to his quest for the Golden Slam in Tokyo, while Nadal’s status is unclear after he pulled out of the National Bank Open and Western & Southern Open. Medvedev should be in far more of a groove than either.
"I think the best preparation for me coming to the US Open is to try to win as many matches as possible,” he said last week. “That's the only thing I'm thinking about right now…the more matches I win here and in Cincy, the better I'm going to feel for the US Open.
“I definitely like to build momentum. I remember last year where I won Bercy, London, and I think I had a 21-match winning streak coming into the Australian Open final, which is a huge achievement.
I'm going to go full power at Cincinnati because again, yeah, it's a Masters 1000. I need to build the momentum and confidence coming into the US Open.
Medvedev feels like he is a step away from his Grand Slam breakthrough. He was impressive at the US Open last year before losing to eventual champion Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals. The year before he came close to pulling off a remarkable comeback from two sets down in the final against Nadal. If he gets another shot at the final this year, experience could help him over the line, just as it has since that narrow loss to Nadal. He is 7-1 in finals since that result, with his only defeat coming against Djokovic at the Australian Open earlier this year.
"When I played my first Masters final, I was happy just to be there playing against Rafa,” he said this week about his added experience.
“I always try my best, but something was wrong, so I lost super easy and super fast. It can be the same for everybody. I know for me I think experience is the key.”
With even more experience gained over the next few weeks Medvedev will become an even more dangerous player and may lift his first Grand Slam title. Then it will be time for a vacation.
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