Man, oh man do fortunes change quickly in this world. Nine months ago today, Daniil Medvedev woke up in his hotel room in Melbourne having just the night before achieved, in my opinion, the finest five hour stretch of pure tennis in his entire career. The Australian Open’s defacto number one seed and prohibitive favourite was under an absolute onslaught from inspired ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassme, falling two sets behind despite maintaining a high level through the first 90+ minutes of the match. What followed was three hours of Medvedev at his undeniable best; slapping winners from both baseline wings, knifing serves sliding through the court at impossible speeds, hurling his gangling frame up, down and across the beautiful blue Rod Laver court to chase down each and every haymaker the young, hungry Canadian contender was throwing his way. With 4 hours 42 minutes on the match clock (and a match point saved late in the fourth set), Medvedev finally put away Auger-Aliassime’s brave challenge and sealed what looked like it could be one of the defining victories of the Russian stars’ career.
It all just came together to feel like one of those moments. You know the ones, where a great player transcends, takes that next step, shows us something that we maybe didn’t know they had.. It felt as though that night might be one of those we would talk about decades from now, when analysing why the then future, now former, world no.1 wasn’t just another excellent player to ascend to the sports’ pinnacle on the back of an admittedly often flawed points system. It was potentially the birth of an argument, a debate, a question; is this strange human concoction of pure grit, snark and limbs named Daniil Medvedev perhaps, just a little bit…special?
Yes, it really is true when they say that ‘life hits you fast’ and poor Daniil Medvedev can attest to that better than just about anyone. Two nights later, Medvedev claimed another brilliant victory, dispatching maybe his most talented contemporary (and definitely his most heated rival) 4th seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in a testy four-set semi final. All was well in the world of Daniil Medvedev and it stood to get a whole lot better. But that feisty, defiant display would arguably be the last morsel of tennis-related joy the Russian would experience all the way up until, well, the writing of this article here on October 26th.
Two nights after that, Medvedev played in what might go down as one of the most significant matches in tennis history, as well as the crossroads moment of his entire career; the Australian Open final, his second in a row, against the man who needs no introduction, then-20 time major champion Rafael Nadal. It was on that night where Medvedev would become victim to one of the great comebacks (and collapses) in the sports long, often cruel, history, as he surrendered a two sets to love lead (as well as leading 3-2, 0-40 at one point in the third) and was downed in over 5 hours of what had to be a gruelling, unforgiving and overall, demoralising experience.
Even on that day, it felt like this could be one of those “fork in the road” moments for the forlorn star. Would this tennis trauma galvanise the already fiery 26-year-old and turn his 2022 season into his own personal ‘revenge tour’, or would the heartbreak and the demons linger in his mind and seep into his play throughout the season? Basically, would it be his making, or his breaking? Of course, at the time, we knew little of how forces even far beyond his control would compound the damage and send him spiralling toward the latter.
First, it was a hernia injury accrued during the Sunshine Swing which, for all intents and purposes, wiped out any opportunity at building momentum post-AO meltdown. A water-treading fourth round exit at the French Open capped a severely abridged clay court season and was followed by another divine setback, this time in the form of the AELTC’s ban of Russian and Belarussian players which 86’ed a dream of a first Wimbledon triumph before he could even put racket on ball.
By the time the Russian reach his ‘happy place’, the US summer hard court season where he had been bulletproof since his breakthrough in 2019, the man was grasping for any semblance of consistency, clinging to a world number one ranking he had almost stumbled upon by accident, largely due to both the holdover of points from last years’ US Open Series and the vaccination-restriction-induced absense of Novak Djokovic. Regardless of reason, Medvedev brutally underperformed between the lines he had once metaphorically painted in his colours, losing to a resurgent Nick Kyrgios in Montreal, his arch nemesis Tsitsipas in Cincinnati, and then Kyrgios again in the fourth round of his US Open title defense, meekly relinquishing his only major crown and no.1 ranking in one fell swoop.
So, here we are, nine months later in a very different place to where we found ourselves that night on Rod Laver. It’s a rather depressing tale, possibly one which Medvedev himself potentially foreshadowed in a quite harrowing press conference following his Australian Open loss to Nadal. Amongst many other quotes that didn’t exactly fill you with optimism about his immediate future in the sport, Medvedev now famously declared that “(referring to himself in the third person) The kid (had) stopped dreaming”, largely believed to be a response to the, to put it lightly, unwelcoming environment the Melbourne crowd created for him that night against their hero, Nadal.
It’s hard not to see that as a big part of the Russian’s story. Whether a result of his own often cantankerous nature, a resistance from fans to let of the Big 3 era, or simply an offshoot of the fact that the man looks nothing of the part of a tennis superstar on the surface, Medvedev’s rise to the top of the sport always felt like an outsider bashing his way in by brute force, ungainly elbows poked out to shove past the gatekeepers of the sport who might’ve preferred a more… let’s say, presentable representative. It’s what has made him so beloved by a subsection of anti-traditionalist fans, and often loudly opposed by those who have become accustomed to the ‘grace and decorum’ of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic generation. Anyone who believed in concepts such as fate and destiny might believe that it’s simply not meant to be, that figures whom are destined to ascend to positions like “face of the sport” are simply not meant to wear as many proverbial warts.
It certainly does seem brutally ironic that Medvedev’s fall from grace has coincided almost perfectly with the rise of his world no.1 ranking and US Open championship usurper, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who is Medvedev’s polar opposite in just about every way. Put bluntly, the bright eyed, boulder-shouldered Spaniard walks and talks like a team of the world’s most cunning sports marketers brought him to life Dr. Frankenstein style from a 12-hour brainstorm session on how to create the next racket-wielding Rolex Ambassador. Guys like Alcaraz sign the posters, kiss the babies, get the topless airbrushed Men’s Fitness cover, and yes, lift the big trophies when all is said and done. The Medvedev’s of this world are just the obstacles these men clear on route to their conquest. Is that just the way it’s meant to be? If the tennis gods truly exist out there somewhere, they’ve certainly weighed in with their verdict with the fortune, good and bad, both have been handed this year.
The numbers on Medvedev’s year aren’t as much of an eye sore as the ghastly picture I have painted might suggest; 40-15 win/loss record, four finals, a token 250 title at the tennis mecca of Los Cabos (yes, that is sarcasm you are detecting) and more than a likely spot at the ATP Finals all but sealed, should he choose to extend this trying season. He will more than likely settle somewhere between 4th and 7th in the year end rankings (he still has a boat load of points to defend in Paris and Turin before this miserable year can be put to bed), notching up a fourth straight year-end top 10 finish.
But when he brushed aside Djokovic’s quest at the Calendar Grand Slam in straight sets at the US Open final last year, Medvedev looked like he was reaching up at rarified air. He entered Melbourne Park chasing a ‘never-before-in-the-Open-Era” achievement in Melbourne, attempting to become the first man in history to back up his first major title with a second in his very next entry, and four rounds in, he looked primed to cement his spot as the player of his era. On this day nine months ago, he walked out of Rod Laver Arena having come through maybe his first indisputable classic Australian Open contest. The stage was set. The red carpet was rolled out…
And yet nine months later, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz is the world number one and the handsome face plastered on every magazine cover. Djokovic and Nadal are far from finished, having claimed three of the years four major titles on the year between them. And Medvedev has somehow become an afterthought in a year that was supposed to be his coronation.
Time is far from up for Medvedev. He’ll only be 27 in January; by that point, Federer still had 8 majors left him, Nadal and Djokovic had time to scoop up 11 and 15 (and counting), respectively. Even Andy Murray had time to squeeze in more Wimbledon triumph deep into his late 20’s before his hips decided they’d had enough. Excluding the anomalous Alcaraz, life in modern tennis’ elite echelon doesn’t really begin until 25, when the physical fruits of youth tie with the valuable big-stage experiences that appears not just preferable, but absolutely paramount to taking out Nadal and Djokovic, the sports two remaining ageless overlords.
It’s worth noting Medvedev and his wife, Daria, have just this month welcomed their first child into the world (another notable nugget of irony in this truly dizzying nine month spell for the Russian); who knows if that will be the spark that reignites his flame. For all we know, the book on Daniil Medvedev’s unlikely story of tennis superstardom is far from written. After all, a lot can change in just nine short months. He knows that better than most.