AO 2021: The Table Is Set For Daniil Medvedev

his image is a derivative of Australian Open 2020 by Rob Keating (CC BY 2.0)

After a 2020 U.S. Open in which a non-Big 3 player didn’t have to beat a member of the Big 3 to win a first major title, Daniil Medvedev is encountering a scenario almost as favourable in Melbourne. 

Yes, Medvedev will probably need to beat Novak Djokovic if he is going to win the 2021 Australian Open, but first things first: He won’t have to play Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. 

Nadal, up two sets and cruising in the quarterfinals, was shockingly defeated by Stefanos Tsitsipas. The result was stunning not because Nadal lost, but because Nadal lost after leading by two sets. That had happened only once before at a major tournament, in 2015 at the U.S. Open against Fabio Fognini

The Tsitsipas victory over Rafa means that Nadal is now 223-2 at majors when winning the first two sets of a match. It took something THAT improbable to deny us a Nadal-Medvedev semifinal. It took something historically rare on a grand (slam) scale for Medvedev to avoid a Nadal-Djokovic path through the final two rounds of this tournament.  

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No one needs a big explanation about the reality that it’s extraordinarily difficult to beat both Nadal and Djokovic in the same major tournament. It is draining enough to beat one of them; having to come back a few days later and beat the other requires almost superhuman strength and willpower.  

Daniil Medvedev – who easily dismissed Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals and hasn’t encountered a cutthroat draw through five rounds in Australia – won’t have to play Nadal in the semis. Then, if he gets by Tsitsipas in a match he will clearly be favoured to win, he will probably meet Djokovic in the final. 

To be clear, Djokovic – even if physically limited – is still a world-class player who dwells in the top tier of men’s tennis. Merely 65 percent of Djokovic is still better than nearly everyone else at 90 to 100 percent. We have seen it at this tournament, where he simply refused to use his discomfort as a reason to check out of matches.  

He fought through the Taylor Fritz fifth set. He raised his game in the third set against Milos Raonic. He came back from 4-1 and 3-0 deficits in consecutive sets to outlast Alexander Zverev. If you wanted to say that Djokovic – a massive favourite over Aslan Karatsev in the semifinals – is the favourite in a possible final against Medvedev, you wouldn’t get a strong protest from me. That’s perfectly reasonable. 

Yet, we can just as clearly say – without controversy – that if ever there was a good time to face Djokovic in a major final, it’s here and now, this week in Melbourne.  

Djokovic is going to take time off after this Australian Open to recover. He had to consult medical advisers for opinions and evaluations on his physical condition, making sure that the act of playing did not put his body at increased long-term risk. The mere fact that Djokovic had to elicit such evaluations is enough of an indication that his body is nowhere near its peak level of functionality. Djokovic is getting by on far less than the full extent of his physical capabilities.  

Medvedev might not avoid Djokovic if he wants to win the Australian Open and bag his first major championship, but Club Med is nevertheless in a great position. He won’t play the very best iteration of Djokovic. He can’t ask for a much better scenario than the one he has. 

Now the only question remaining is, “Can he make the most of it?” 

The 2020 tennis year – such as it was, disrupted by the pandemic – was a lost year for many tennis players. Medvedev was part of that large crowd. He lost early in Australia, before the pandemic, and he couldn’t solve Dominic Thiemin the U.S. Open semifinals. His 2019 second-half surge – where he dominated hardcourt tennis for multiple months, save for a five-set loss to Nadal in the U.S. Open final – marked him as an elite hardcourt player. However, his weakness on clay and grass means that Medvedev has to pounce on chances at hardcourt majors when they do arrive. 

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This chance – right here, right now – is as juicy and promising as Club Med could hope for in the Big 3 era. 

In seven or eight years, when Medvedev is 32 or 33 years old and the Big 3 have all retired, the Russian might have opportunities to win majors which are much less fraught with peril or uncertainty. 

Medvedev and others in his age cohort could one day encounter major tournaments in which they will be expected to win it all, not merely make the semis. However, within the confines of the Big 3 era – which is still not over – this current scenario is as favourable as Medvedev could have possibly imagined. 

If you had told him before the tournament that he would play an unseeded opponent (Mackenzie McDonald) in the Round of 16 and would avoid Nadal in the semifinals, with Djokovic being physically limited in a possible final, Medvedev would have signed a paper guaranteeing that outcome. 

As Medvedev wakes up on Thursday morning and realises that Nadal is out of the tournament, there is no need to sign a paper contract. The ideal scenario has in fact become reality for the Russian. 

The table is set. Does he have the stomach needed to devour this incredible opportunity which has been laid out in front of him? 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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