Whatever the opposite of a match made in heaven is, apply it to Daniil Medvedev and playing on clay. Medvedev might be the third best in the world in the ATP rankings – until recently the second best – but he hasn’t got that high from his results on red dirt. His career record on the surface is 10-18, giving him a win percentage of 0.357, far below his success rate on hard courts (0.715) where he has won all 10 of his titles, and grass (0.600).
So what is it about clay that is so difficult for Medvedev to master? Everything, according to him.
“My shots, my movement, my physical appearance doesn't suit clay…First week when I come on clay I hate everything around me. I just hate to be on the court, and that's very rare for me.”
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The most significant issue for Medvedev seems to be the power from his game is diminished on clay, which is a slower surface than hard courts. He hits flat groundstrokes which don’t penetrate as well as top-spin shots and also gives him less margin for error from around the court. He also doesn’t get as many free points from his serve as he would on hard courts.
While his movement is perhaps not as bad as he suggests, playing on clay requires more angles to be hit and doesn’t present as many chances for hitting clean winners.
"'It seems to me that he is in a bit more hurry on the clay," said Dusan Lajovic, who beat Medvedev in the semi-finals of the Monte-Carlo Masters in 2019, earlier this year.
"What suits him least on clay are the frequent changes of rhythm - in the speed of the ball, in the spin and the slice. He is unstoppable when the ball is at hip height or a little higher; when played in the same rhythm, it is a nightmare for every player. On hard, he often knows how to draw the opponent into his game, and on clay, the rival has more space to find a solution."
Medvedev has enjoyed some success on clay in 2019 when he reached the semi-finals in Monte Carlo and then made the final of the Barcelona Open. But those results were followed by three straight first-round, and last year he lost both his matches on the surface. He’s yet to play on clay this season after testing positive for Covid-19 at the Monte-Carlo Masters, but is set to make his debut at the Madrid Open this week.
In theory this might be the best clay tournament for Medvedev as it is played at altitude and suits the bigger hitters.
"I think that can help," he said ahead of his opening match against Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
"It's more comparable to hard courts here in Madrid because the clay is fast, altitude, serve goes fast. In the results and in the game we can see that guys maybe who can suffer a little bit on clay here can play better. So, yeah, that's also one of the things that makes me feel more comfortable before the tournament."
Medvedev is still not aiming high – he says his goal in Madrid, Rome and Roland-Garros is to “at least win one match in each of them” – but is there a chance he could fire on clay?
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"Two years ago I beat some really good guys," he added. "I was in really good shape. So I know that I'm capable. Just need to always find this confidence and this feeling which is tougher for me to find on clay than on hard courts.”
The next two months are a fascinating part of the season for Medvedev, who reached No 2 in the world after making the final of the Australian Open and then winning the Marseille Open. He only has a handful of points counting towards his ranking on clay and grass, so has the opportunity to potentially move back to No 2, depending how Rafael Nadal fares over the following month. A very strong clay season could even see him get to No 1 - he would need to win Madrid or Rome and get to the semi-finals in the other, with Novak Djokovic also not making the Rome final.
Rather than the rankings it will be interesting to see if Medvedev can get anywhere his near his best on clay. He showed in 2019, when he beat Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Kei Nishikori on the surface, that he is able to contend on his day. But will he rediscover his form over the next month?
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