Tennis, as you’ve probably heard a million times already, is a game of fine margins. When you watch two pros having a go at each other on the court, you can’t immediately tell who the better player is. At the top level, everyone seems to hit the ball equally hard, run equally quick, and in general, play equally well.
It’s just the few crucial moments – one throwaway forehand winner here, one unexpected ace there – that determine most results. One player somehow finds a way to win, even if he doesn’t seem obviously better than his opponent.
That aspect of the sport is never more starkly evident than when you watch any of Daniil Medvedev’s matches. No matter what the scoreline may be, it’s hard to tell what the Russian is better (or worse) at than his opponent. He never really seems to be doing anything special on the court; he serves with a simple ball toss that looks likely to go in even if his eyes are closed, and he hits his groundstrokes with a vapid monotony that would put any machine to shame.
But don’t tell that to Kei Nishikori.
The Tokyo final had seemed to be Nishikori’s for the taking. God knows he was playing well enough, and had waited long enough (the last time he won a title was in early 2016), for the odds to be stacked firmly in his favour. And when you threw in the fact that his extensive shot-making repertoire was pitted against the unremarkable game of Medvedev, he almost felt like the preordained champion.
But what couldn’t possibly have been preordained was how Nishikori would find himself tied up in all kinds of knots for the majority of the match. He just couldn’t get the engines going when he needed them the most, and coughed up errors at the most inopportune moments. The Russian seemed to have some kind of stranglehold – almost voodoo-like in its efficiency – on the local favorite, which helped him win practically all the big points.
If we are going to be completely scientific about it though, there was nothing sinister about Medvedev’s dominance; it was just some good old efficient working of the margins. In other words, it was superior execution, at its simplest and most effective.
Medvedev served better – he put 63% of his first serves in, and won 93% of those points. He returned better – many of Nishikori’s puffball second serves were treated with disdain, as they always should be. He hit his groundstrokes better – in most of the long rallies, he managed to angle his shots just that tiny bit more acutely to get Nishikori out of position.
All of this may seem utterly mundane, but Medvedev knows that the mundane can get the job done in tennis. When the margins are that fine, you don’t always need to bring out the glamour shot; you only need to sneak in a few points here and there to get the win. And the Russian snuck in more than just a few points today; he snuck in a boatload of them.
Medvedev is roughly in the same age group as Alexander Zverev, Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric, but he’s always been something of an afterthought in most ‘NextGen’ conversations. Maybe that’s because of his game; if you never seem to be doing anything spectacular on the court, you are not expected to achieve spectacular results in the future.
Last year, the only time Medvedev made the headlines was during Wimbledon. But that was less because of his tennis – his win over Stan Wawrinka in the first round barely created any ripples – and more for his behaviour. The Russian threw a few coins at umpire Marina Alves’ chair after losing in the second round, presumably suggesting that Alves was a sellout, and the Wimbledon organisers promptly fined him US$7,500 – presumably after they had stopped laughing hysterically.
This year has been more of the same. He won the Sydney International in January, but all anyone could talk about then was how Australia’s Alex de Minaur had suddenly turned into a teenage sensation. To be fair, Medvedev then proceeded to put in a string of underwhelming performances at the Slams, which would justify the lack of attention on him. But his victory at the Winston-Salem Open in August was again brushed under the carpet; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lot of people who know that he has won three titles this year.
But that may be set to change. Medvedev has shown this year, admittedly in fits and bursts, that his seemingly unremarkable game can yield remarkable results. He moves well for a 6’6” guy, has a sneaky-quick serve, and hits some weirdly flat groundstrokes that a lot of players don’t know what to do with. There’s no reason why that specific combination of elements can’t make for a steady top-10 career, or even a top-5 one.
After winning the Tokyo final, Medvedev was understandably ecstatic. “I was playing amazing and I am so happy to come out on top,” he said. “To play seven matches and losing only one set, this makes me extremely happy.”
Yes, Medvedev played seven matches in Tokyo; he didn’t have direct entry into the tournament, and so had to play qualifying matches to enter the main draw. That’s a heck of a lot of wins in a single week for a player with no obvious weapons. In fact, it is the same number of wins you need for a Grand Slam title.
It is probably way too soon to be talking about Medvedev being a potential Slam champion. But in an era where no young player has truly distinguished himself from the pack, the list of future Slam winners may well contain a few unexpected names. What’s stopping Medvedev then?
Certainly not the margins, because we know he can work them as well as anyone.