Djokovic v Medvedev: In 2021 they became the ATP’s “Big Two” and big rivals

In 2021 Daniil Medvedev emerged as the one player from the next generation that could challenge Novak Djokovic on the biggest stages of the sport. Let the rivalry begin…

Daniil Medvedev and Novak Djokovic

One great battle doth not a rivalry make, but when two forces of the game continue to clash with one another on the biggest stages of the sport, it is inevitable that sparks start to fly. Given time, those sparks tend to turn into full-blaze fires. That is what we’ve seen happen over the past three seasons, as Novak Djokovic has continued to dominate men’s tennis while Daniil Medvedev has steadily evolved to the point where he stands as the one player who can truly challenge the 20-time major champion at any venue, no matter the stakes.

“He’s closing in on the world No 1 ranking,” Djokovic said on Sunday after completing his 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph over the Russian in the Paris Masters final. “I’m sure he’s going to get it eventually, and when he does, it’s completely deserved, because he’s the leader of the next generation of players, where you have (Alexander) Zverev, Dominic Thiem, (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, (Andrey) Rublev, these guys. You know, they are already there. They are challenging the three of us old guys, and we’re going to try to hang in there and win big tournaments along with the young generation.”

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x85cf2d

The rite of passage in New York

Djokovic improved his head to head record to 6-4 over Medvedev with Sunday’s title-clinching victory but there is a feeling that the 25-year-old is catching up to the world No 1. By defeating Djokovic in this year’s US Open final, Medvedev had achieved a rite of passage. And in doing so he has proven himself to be a cut above the other elite players in his peer group. Zverev has three wins over Djokovic, but none at the slams. Tsitsipas has two wins against Djokovic but none at the slams. And neither of them has a Grand Slam title to their name, and the cachet that brings.

The mere fact that Medvedev was in Paris in 2021 with a slim shot to finish the season with the No 1 ranking says a lot about his development, and his aspirations. And the fact that Djokovic and Medvedev met for a 10th time on Sunday in Paris, where Medvedev was the defending champion, is also meaningful. Medvedev is staking out his territory on tour, Paris is one of his “hot” spots, and he wanted to keep it that way.

“Every time you lose a match, you always have feelings where you feel that you could do a little bit better,” Medvedev said on Sunday. “But I gave everything I had. I was playing one of the best players in history, and you could feel that he really, really wanted to win. It was a huge battle.”

Rivalries get defined by adversaries who possess similar desires, and the insatiable hunger to achieve to grow their tennis empire. Djokovic and Rafael Nadal fought over Monte-Carlo, Roland Garros, and the US Open. Federer and Nadal fought over the Australian Open (before Djokovic took over), while Nadal refused to budge at Roland Garros and Federer, except for 2008, would not give up ground at Wimbledon. The stakes grew higher as these battle lines were drawn, the tension mounted and public was captivated.

Those rivalries are not what they used to be. Federer is 40 and his future is cloudy; Nadal and Djokovic are crossing paths less and less often at the majors. The good news is we have a new generational battle to savour. Medvedev is playing big and dreaming big, and if Djokovic wants to keep winning major titles and finishing seasons at No 1 he will have to go through the Russian to do it.

Get your popcorn ready – it’s rivalry on.

A first taste: 2017 Davis Cup

Like all good rivalries, Djokovic v Medvedev has taken time to percolate. It started in January 2017 when an inexperienced Medvedev, ranked 65, bowed out to Djokovic at Davis Cup, retiring due to injury after one game of the fourth set (3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 1-0 ret.). It was a sad ending after a hopeful start – the Russian took the opening set from the great Serb, and his confidence grew with it.

“I said it was one of the biggest, maybe the biggest match of my career because of who I played against,” Medvedev said in 2018. “I started amazing but then I think because of the pressure or, I don’t know why, but I started cramping—full body cramps—so it was disappointing that I couldn’t show all I have for the whole game but still it was an amazing experience.”

Djokovic, Medvedev, Cervara, Deschamps, Hernandez, Mouratoglou academy
Djokovic, Medvedev, Cervara, Deschamps, Hernandez, at the Mouratoglou Academy, October 2021 (© Instagram Gilles Cervara)

Another spark: Australian Open 2019, round of 16

Medvedev lost to Djokovic on the grass at Eastbourne later in 2017 but his match-up with the Serb a year and a half later, at the 2019 Australian Open, was one that really caught the attention of tennis fans – and Djokovic as well. Medvedev pushed the Australian Open juggernaut to four sets in his first trip to the second week of a major, and afterwards Djokovic admitted that he was impressed.

“We have lots of respect for each other, with Medvedev,” Djokovic said after the 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-2 6-3 victory. “We have practiced a lot of times together in the past several years, because he also resides in Monaco, and I get to see him a lot. He asked me whether he made me sweat at all, you know, tonight. I just laugh, because, you know, I think the answer is obvious.”

2019: Two wins in a row for Medvedev

2019 was yet another dominant season for Novak Djokovic, which included slam titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon as well as titles at Madrid, Tokyo and Paris. But there were some bumps in the road and Medvedev was there to take advantage. The Russian scored his first two wins against Djokovic, in the quarter-finals in Monte-Carlo and in the semi-finals in Cincinnati. Far from a win against Djokovic at a slam, these victories were steps in the right direction, and they set the table for the triumph to come.

The victory in Cincinnati was a memorable affair – the Russian was down a set and a break but delivered clutch serves and played with swagger down the stretch to notch an eye-opening triumph.

“I’m just super happy with the level I played today,” Medvedev said after the final. “Yeah, as you say, playing aggressive. And against Novak and beating him is a great achievement, you know. Especially thinking he was in good form here.”

Progress as a player – Medvedev sets his own bar high

A few weeks later Medvedev would take his place in his first major final, losing to Nadal in five sets at the US Open. The sudden success, and stardom that came with it, didn’t satisfy the Russian one bit. Even during 2020, a year marred by the Coronavirus pandemic, Medvedev kept striving for the top of tennis. He faced Djokovic at the ATP Cup in January of 2020 and pushed him to three sets before falling, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. At the end of the season, Medvedev struck again, rocketing past Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 during a run to the Nitto ATP Finals title – it still wasn’t a Grand Slam victory over the Serb, but the win in London was a clear shot across Djokovic’s bow.

2021: A hard lesson and a first Slam success

Medvedev would learn how difficult it is to beat Djokovic at the Grand Slams yet again in 2021 when he was blitzed by the Serb in the final in Melbourne, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. It was a harsh reality for Medvedev but he took the right reaction:

“Next time if I play Novak ever here in the final, I for sure going to do some things on the court, maybe off the court also, differently because at least I would have this experience where he won me easy,” he said. “So I’ll try to do something better. Doesn’t mean that I will succeed, but that’s life of a tennis player.”

And finally, the hard work paid off this summer in New York, when Medvedev ended Djokovic’s quest for the calendar-year Grand Slam at the US Open, defeating the Serb 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 for his maiden Grand Slam title.

“The new generation, if you want to call them this way, is not anyone new,” Djokovic admitted. “It’s already current, established. Of course, they are going to take over. I think tennis is in good hands because they’re all nice guys and very, very good, high-quality tennis players.”

Medvedev and Djokovic have a laugh after the 2021 Australian Open final

The future of this rivalry looks bright

Medvedev says that in time the public will come to better appreciate the jaw-dropping level of statistical milestones that Djokovic has produced.

“There are going to be new people coming to tennis who are just going to read in Wikipedia or whatever what were the results, who was the world No 1 for most weeks, for most times in the end, and they are going to see Novak everywhere. That’s when people are going to start to understand, Okay, that’s amazing what he has done,” he said.

In the present, Medvedev knows that Djokovic stands as his biggest obstacle to success at the slams and the possibility of becoming world No 1. If he plans to continue his ascent he will have to find ways to beat Djokovic when the Serb is at his best, and at the venues where the Serb has dominated the most, like Melbourne Park, Wimbledon and the US Open.

Today’s defeat was another experience that will help him understand that mission. Djokovic changed up his game plan and attacked the net to great effect, exposing Medvedev’s deep court positioning.

“I wanted to keep him on his toes, that he doesn’t know what’s coming up next, to be a little bit unpredictable,” Djokovic said. “You need to do it against him, he likes the pace, he likes the tempo. Doesn’t work always, but I think this is the right game plan.”

Medvedev agreed. “I knew that he would try to take his revenge even if the match is not the same, Medvedev said. “What was at stake was not the same. Of course I’m not talking about the prize money here. I could feel he really wanted to win no matter what, and this is what competition is all about.”

Now it’s Medvedev’s move, what can he do to counter Djokovic’s latest chess move? And how will Djokovic stay fit enough to compete with rising Medvedev, when the Serb turns 35 next season, while the Russian is only 26, just at the beginning of his physical prime?

The possibilities are endless, the projections are intriguing, and the excitement is bubbling over. Their next meeting could be even better than their last, and it is this anticipation that keeps us on the edge of our seats, eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

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