November 22, 2020

From Zero to Hero

What a turnaround for Daniil Medvedev.

The world #4 came to London for his second trip to the year-end championships with a season that was a far cry than what he put together last year. Red hot to round out the 2019 season -- the now 24-year-old Russian had put together a stunning 29-4 record in his regular season after Wimbledon, playing six finals, including the U.S. Open, and picking up three titles -- I thought him nearly unstoppable. He'd beaten Dominic Thiem in Montreal, Novak Djokovic in Cincinnati, and forced Rafael Nadal to a stunning five setter in New York. But then, to the surprise of many, he went winless at the ATP Finals.

It appeared that lost momentum was following him into 2020, too -- while he made the semis at the ATP Cup, he lost fairly early to Stan Wawrinka in Australia and despite break leads in the second and third sets against Thiem in the U.S. Open semis, he ended up losing in straight sets a match that should have been much closer. He didn't do much better in the early fall either, losing in the first round of both clay court events he played, including Roland Garros, and then dropping matches to Reilly Opelka in St. Petersburg and Kevin Anderson in Vienna.

It might have been easy to write him off. But then he hit the hard courts of Paris and everything changed. He blasted past an on-point Diego Schwartzman in the quarters and came back from a set down to beat Alexander Zverev, who was coming off his own Grand Slam final debut at, offcourt issues notwithstanding, had won the last two events he'd played.

The title, Medvedev's first of the season, seemed to help him find the confidence that appeared lacking for so long. He was the only player of the eight qualifiers in London to win all three of his round robin matches, even stunning Djokovic, and didn't drop a single set. Against Rafa in Saturday's semi, he held tough after losing the first set and again when Nadal was serving for the match in the third, to pull off his first win over the world #2 in four meetings and to deny the Spaniard another chance to play for one of the few titles he's never won.

Meanwhile Dominic Thiem, last year's runner-up at the ATP Finals, was coming back to the O2 for the fifth straight year, but for the first time as a Major trophy winner. He was nearly flawless in his group matches, scoring an all-important win over Nadal but losing to London newbie Andrey Rublev in his last round robin. But he was undaunted against Djokovic in the semi -- after squandering match points in the second set tiebreak and finding himself in a 0-4 hole in the deciding breaker, he powered through to win seven of the next eight points, finally capitalizing on his sixth match point to get back to the final.

He came out firing on Sunday too, taking the first set from Medvedev in the championship match, but somehow the Russian was able to regroup again. After saving break chances in the second, Medvedev was able to force a decider and a late break in the third ultimately earned him the win.

The win for Medvedev serves as a nice bookend for the ATP Finals' time in London -- the first event held here back in 2009 was won by fellow Russian Nikolay Davydenko, what turned out to be by far the biggest win of his career. Will this be the highlight for Medvedev, too? Somehow, I doubt it. At 24, he's got much more time to be at the top of his game, and his ability to go from 0-3 to 5-0 against the very best players in the world suggests my initial belief in his talent was not unfounded.

Of course, we still don't know what next year will look like -- as we've seen the last pro matches of a very weird tennis season, there remain a ton of questions about the lead up to the Australian Open, who will make the trip, what restrictions they'll be under. But it seems certain Medvedev will hit the court running and the rest of the field will have to watch out.

No comments: