Exclusive interview: “Crazy” Daniil Medvedev back on song after crazy year
Russian world No 4 tells Simon Cambers why winning the Nitto ATP Finals would be a big step on the way to trying to win his first Grand Slam title.
Early in 2020, some of the leading players on the ATP Tour were asked to describe Daniil Medvedev using just one word.
The responses focused largely on his style of play. Karen Khachanov called him “Octopus”, Alexander Zverev went for “Spider” and Denis Shapovalov said “unorthodox”. But Medvedev was drawn to another answer.
“When I saw it, I was laughing a lot,” the Russian told Tennis Majors in an interview. “I liked the answer of David Goffin. He thought for a second and he said “crazy”. I liked that.”
Over the past two years, world No 4 Medvedev has become one of the most consistent performers on the ATP Tour, picking up four titles in 2019 and adding another Masters 1000 title in 2020 through his victory earlier this month in Paris. But as a junior, Medvedev’s temperament could best be described as “volatile”, something he admitted at this year’s US Open after he beat his childhood friend Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals. “When we were kids, we could actually go crazy, and because of this, lose the match,” he said.
Things have changed now, with both Medvedev and Rublev having qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals, which begin in London on Sunday. For Rublev it’s his first time; for Medvedev it’s his second year in a row at the season-ending event.
While some players achieve massive things in tennis very early in their career, his progression through the ranks has been steady, rather than spectacular. He broke into the top 100 when he 20, made the top 10 two years later and in 2019, made the big step up to the top 10 and the top five. Even a few years ago, he would happily admit that he found the rhythm of playing best of five sets tough to fathom; now he Medvedev has become a genuine contender for the sport’s biggest titles.
He’s already made one Grand Slam final, at last year’s US Open, and with all eight of his career titles having come on hard courts, he is primed to perform far better in London than last year, when he lost all three of his round-robin matches, including one “choke” when he led Rafael Nadal 5-1 in the deciding set and had match point only to lose. Should he manage to take the title in London, it would be another stepping stone as he tries to claim that first slam title.
“If we look at my career was step by step, I didn’t have any special jumps,” he said. “Of course, all of these steps were small jumps, but I never had one real like I was, I don’t know, (ranked) 500, got a wildcard, won an ATP (event), no. I was going Futures, Challengers, all the way, semis, going through qualies of ATPs. And that’s why also, yeah, last year the ATP Finals was not easy. But all of this experience that helps you progress in life. And hopefully it can help me this year. But talking about the slams is a different thing.”
Though Medvedev played well at the US Open, reaching the semi-finals before losing to the eventual champion, Dominic Thiem, the Russian lost in the first round at Roland-Garros and was in scratchy form indoors. Before he arrived at Bercy, he said he was complaining to his wife: “Oh my God, I don’t have my level, I don’t even have one final, I’m playing so bad, blah, blah, blah.” He found his game in the French capital, though, where he beat Zverev to win the title.
Like a lot of players, Medvedev found the coronavirus lockdown a testing time. Unable to train for some time, he had plenty of time for his other hobbies; computer games, playing fantasy football leagues and watching Bayern Munich on TV.
“I play a lot of computer games when I’m back home,” he said. “I take them with me on the on the tour. So for sure in lockdown, I played a bit. Yeah. Of course, there was no soccer for some time but they were the first to come back. I still try to watch every time even if I’m on the tennis courts or something. I just open it on my phone. I like football. I play in Fantasy Premier League. So I really like soccer. I like to watch it. I like to follow the news and football players.
“I don’t play any other of my fellow ATP players, I play against my Russian friends and I should say that the year before I was not bad, I was like maybe in (the top) five hundred, or thousand, I was for sure. And this year I’m really not good, about one million, even though I feel I’m not doing a bad team. I just have a really bad luck but I think it’s going to come back.”
At 6ft 6in, Medvedev is one of the new generation of players who have transformed what we expect from tall players. Where once someone of his height would have had power but been limited in their movement, Medvedev is a superb athlete, able to cover the court as well as anyone and capable of coming up with some outrageous shots. His height can make it seem like he is stooping when hitting his backhand, for example, which perhaps explains why Shapovalov plumped for “unorthodox” when asked to describe him.
“Looking back on myself before (when he was younger), I think I had, let’s call it ‘more strange tennis and technique’,” he said. “Now, I should say when I see myself on the replays, I find it more normal. I would say I don’t see anything too special except some shots where I can lose my balance or something like this. When I was young, I was really unbalanced. So it can still happen to me, yeah, it was a funny video and funny what guys think about me.”
Even in more normal times, tennis players spend a lot of time in hotels or apartments, killing time by watching Netflix or following news on their phones via social media. The US presidential election has dominated much of the headlines of late, and Medvedev has been keeping up.
“I’m following news, I would say,” he said. “I’m just trying out some news channels, because I like to know what’s happening around the world. Politics is part of my life that I’m not really into, because, I know that we can talk about politics for hours with friends and family, but if you’re not working in it, and maybe even if you are, you know nothing. I mean, you know nothing what happens there, you can only guess. And I think nine out of 10 times your guess will be wrong. I’m just following it. And let’s see how it goes, OK?”
The focus this week, though, will be on the court, where Medvedev begins his title campaign against Zverev on Monday night and where the “crazy” one will be a contender once more.