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Medvedev Threatens to Dethrone Djokovic at the 2021 Australian Open Tennis

Novak Djokovic reacts during his semifinals match against Aslan Karatsev. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

By Alix Ramsay

As we move towards the sharp end of the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic has been heard making a promise to the younger lads who are trying to knock him off his perch: “I’m going to make them work their asses off,” he said having reached his ninth final. He was not going to give them anything; not so much as smell of an oil rag.

But as the world No.1 prepares for his favourite match on his favourite court (he has never been beaten in a Melbourne final), it may well be that he will be the one working his ass off on Sunday. He will face Daniil Medvedev, the 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 winner over Stefanos Tsitsipas. “Winner” does not really do the victory justice. Save for a brief hiccup in the third set (which we will come to in a moment), he absolutely flattened Tsitsipas.

On paper, this looked like it was going to be a belting match: two men who do not like each other, who play two the game in completely different ways and who are polar opposites in almost everything they do (all they have in common is that they both play tennis and they both wear shorts to go to work).

Novak Djokovic raised his Australian Open semifinals record to 9-0. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS AUSTRALIA

Tsitsipas is the proud Greek with the flamboyant shots – the big serve, the touch at the net and the athleticism to do all the stylish bits in between. He is a good-looking bloke and you get the impression he knows it. He is touchy-feely about life, the world and the human spirit. He is a thinker about such matters and he likes to share his thoughts.

Medvedev is the proud Russian – but he knows the flaws of the Russian psyche and admits to struggling with them. He looks like a man who applied for – and failed to get – the job as a council lamp post (regular hours, good money; you can’t beat it) and, instead, bought a book on tennis and gave that a whirl. He, too, is a thinker but he is the analyst, the scientist, the mathematician rather than the philosopher. You can almost see his brain ticking as he plays, working out the angles, the percentages and the strategies. He is relentless and he is ruthless.

This semi-final, then, was Socrates against Garry Kasparov.

Daniil Medvedev reached his second Grand Slam final in Melbourne. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

For two and a half sets, Medvedev was untouchable. His backhand was filleting the Greek and his serve was devastating. He moved his 6ft 6ins frame around the court like lightning and yet he seemed to have all the time in the world. The Greek god was being overwhelmed by the might of Mother Russia.

Then, for a moment, Medvedev became mortal. Irked that Tsitsipas always kept him waiting during the Greek’s service games, he retaliated.

He was a break up, he was cruising. But Medvedev paused: make Tsitsipas wait. He went to his towel (the crowed booed loudly). He went, in his own time, to serve and missed. The crowd cheered. Then he missed a backhand. The crowd cheered again. And the he double faulted. When he handed over his lead with a fluffed forehand, the crowd was ecstatic. With so many Greeks in Melbourne, Tsitsipas was always going to be their favourite and, anyway, they wanted a five-setter.

But what sets Medvedev apart is his heart and his fight: when the pressure is on, he does not retreat; he attacks. When Tsitsipas had a break point in the Russian’s next service game, there was not hint of playing safe, of getting the ball in play. No, two crushing aces and a service winner repelled the threat.

When he broke Tsitsipas to take a 6-5 lead, he did it with a running backhand down the line, one that defied the laws of physics and geometry: it couldn’t possibly go in. But it did. He turned to the crowd and encouraged them to cheer. He knew that this was the virtual match point. Serving out for his place in the final was a mere formality.

Daniil Medvedev (L) of Russia is congratulated by Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece after winning the Men’s singles semi final match. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

Medvedev has now won 20 consecutive matches since Bercy last November and in that run, he has beaten everyone else in the top 10 bar Roger Federer – and that is only because Federer has not played in more than a year.

His record against Djokovic is better than most: played seven, won three. Their last meeting was in London at the ATP Finals and Medvedev wrapped that up 6-3, 6-3 on his march to the title. But a grand slam final is a different matter entirely. Not that is worries the tall man much; he came within a whisker of beating Rafa Nadal from two sets down in the US Open final in 2019 so he knows what tension, five long sets and pressure feels like in a major final. That, he thinks could be key.

“For me, it’s all about experience,” he said. “I played one grand slam final already. For sure was tight in many moments there. Sometimes it helped me; sometimes not. So I know what it is like, and I know how it’s going to be on Sunday. Experience is going to be a big key to not get tight and to just play again.

“It’s all the small details. I think if we talk in general, well, I have nothing to lose, to be honest. 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. Never know how the match is going to go.

“In last three months, I managed to beat all of the top 10 without Roger; I managed to beat Novak in London, maybe he was not at his best, but still, it’s somewhere where he won four or five times, I think, and quite similar to here maybe.

“So, all of these small details and the experience of playing him seven times before, beating him three times, all these small details give me the chance to maybe be a winner on Sunday.”

Those who have suffered at the hands of Djokovic in a final say that it is like playing against a machine: he never gives an inch and he never wavers from his task. The ball comes back time and time and time again.

Then again, when the chess overlords pitted man against machine, when Kasparov took on IBM’s computer Deep Blue, Kasparov won. Roll on Sunday.