MELBOURNE, Australia — While it’s not easy to fly under the radar as the fourth seed at a Grand Slam, Daniil Medvedev has managed to do exactly that at this year’s Australian Open.
In a tournament beset by drama two weeks before a ball was even hit, the rangy Russian somehow avoided the limelight en route to his second major final — with eight-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic set for the opposite side of the court (Sunday, 3:30 a.m., ESPN/ESPN App).
Before the tournament, there was concern about whether Melbourne would be fit to host such a massive event. Then some players came into contact with COVID-19-positive people and were forced to hard quarantine in their hotel rooms — unable to leave for 14 days. Midway through the tournament, Melbourne was plunged into a five-day lockdown, with crowds banned.
When tennis was being played, eyes were immediately drawn to the top half of the men’s draw — and with good reason. The Novak Djokovic-Nick Kyrgios feud kicked off again, following their long-running coronavirus-related spat, then the world No. 1 said he suffered an abdominal tear in his third round win against American Taylor Fritz. Djokovic kept winning anyway. US Open champion Dominic Thiem was upset by Grigor Dimitrov, and world No. 114 Aslan Karatsev made a fairytale run to the semifinals.
Even when focus shifted to the lower half of the draw, it was straight to No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal, who had seemingly overcome a back injury to establish himself as a tournament favorite. When Nadal was ousted by Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Greek became the story. His five-set quarterfinal upset of Nadal was a comeback for the ages, and fittingly took the headlines.
All the while, Medvedev was quietly cruising through his draw — right up until his straight sets domination of the fifth-seeded Tsitsipas, 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 on Friday.
Even Tsitsipas, with whom the Russian has a complicated relationship, declared he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Medvedev won the tournament, considering how well he was both serving and playing from the baseline.
“He’s a player who has unlocked pretty much everything in the game,” Tsitsipas said following the match. “It’s like he’s reading the game really well. He has this amazing serve which I would describe close to John Isner‘s serve.
“And then he has an amazing baseline which makes it extremely difficult. So even if you return the serve, you don’t guarantee that you’re going to win the point. You have to really work hard for it. It’s difficult. He tricks you. You know, he plays the game really smart.”
What the world No. 4 has done over the past few months is astounding. Sure, a 20-match win streak sounds impressive, but the tournaments at which he has won and the quality of the opponents he has beaten is staggering.
Of those 20 wins, 11 have come against top-10 opponents. He’s beaten Diego Schwartzman (world No. 9) three times, Alexander Zverev (7) three times, Dominic Thiem (3) once, Matteo Berrettini (10) once, Andrey Rublev (8) once, and even world No. 1 Djokovic.
In that time, he’s won the Paris Masters, the ATP Finals, the ATP Cup with Russia and is now in the Australian Open final.
Just six active players on the men’s tour have recorded 20 or more consecutive wins at any stage of their careers; all six are Grand Slam champions.
While the focus has been elsewhere for most of the tournament, Medvedev’s form and the threat he poses hasn’t eluded one observer.
“Medvedev is playing [at] an extremely high [level],” Djokovic said following his semifinal win over Medvedev’s countryman Karatsev. “He’s on a winning match streak, over 20 matches won. He’s just the man to beat, you know.”
Djokovic has reason to be worried. At last year’s ATP Finals, Medvedev defeated the Serbian in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.
The Russian has won three of his last four matches against Djokovic (who leads the overall head-to-head with four wins to three) to have the third best win percentage (43 percent) against the world No. 1 among active players who have played at least five matches against the 17-time Grand Slam champion — with just Roger Federer (46 percent) and Rafael Nadal (48.2 percent) ahead of him.
Medvedev, who turned 25 earlier in the tournament, said he’s motivated and confident he can match it with the world No. 1, especially given he has experienced a Grand Slam final once before — at the 2019 US Open when he lost to Nadal in five sets.
“I would say to win a Slam, especially against somebody as Novak, is already a big motivation, and I don’t think there is anything that can make it bigger,” Medvedev said following his semifinal win.
“When [Djokovic] is in the zone he doesn’t miss. He goes down the line, cross, forehand, backhand, he doesn’t miss. That’s what is the toughest part of playing against him.
“I think that’s where I should be good also and that’s where my game is good. Same answer. So that’s why some matches that we played I think [are] unbelievable matches.
“When Novak says he’s not going to hand anything to somebody, I believe him. I know that to beat him, you need to just show your best tennis, be at your best physically maybe four or five hours, and be at your best mentally maybe for five hours.”
If Medvedev can do what has forever been impossible at Melbourne Park and knock off Djokovic in an Australian Open final, he would move up to become the world No. 2 and the first man not named Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Murray to hold such a spot since July 25, 2005.
Maybe then the world will sit up and take notice of this 6-foot-6 player who somehow flew under the radar in Melbourne.