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Genius, rat or pantomime villain? The mystery of US Open semifinalist Daniil Medvedev

Hannah Wilks in ATP Tour 6 Sep 2019
  • Daniil Medvedev faces Grigor Dimitrov in Friday's US Open semifinals
  • What to make of the unorthodox Russian talent?
Daniil Medvedev speaks to the crowd after reaching the semifinals of the 2019 US Open (PA Sports)

Genius, rat, pantomime villain or all of the above? What to make of US Open semifinalist Daniil Medvedev.

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In October 1939, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as 'a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma', but went on to add: 'But perhaps there is a key.' But then, Winston Churchill never met the latest Russian to break into the top echelons of men's tennis, Daniil Medvedev.

The 23-year-old from Moscow, now living in Monte Carlo, will play Grigor Dimitrov for a place in the final of the 2019 US Open on Friday and will be ranked as high as world no. 4 on Monday, regardless of how he fares against Dimitrov in the semifinals or in a potential final against Rafael Nadal or Matteo Berrettini.

Medvedev in action against Wawrinka (PA Sports)
He is the first player outside the 'Big 3' of Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer to secure qualification for the season-ending championships in London, an honour reserved for the eight best players in the world. He's won more matches on hard courts than any other male player in 2019 and, since Wimbledon, has won 19 of his last 21 matches in a remarkable run that's seen him reach the finals of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. and the Canada Masters, win a maiden Masters 1000 Series title in Cincinnati and now reach his first Grand Slam semifinal in New York.

No male player has been as talked about over the American hard-court swing - and much of that talk has been people trying to figure out how exactly he wins so many matches.

'I said already once it's like to coach a genius. Sometimes a genius, you don't understand them. It's like this. They are different,' Gilles Cervara, Medvedev's coach, said in a press conference ahead of Medvedev's semifinal.

Jean-Renee Lisnard, who is Cervara's partner in managing the Elite Tennis Center in France where Medvedev has trained for years, put it differently: 'He clings like a rat.'

Meanwhile, Medvedev has most frequently been described this week as a 'heel' or pantomime villain, after successive matches in which he aroused the ire of the New York crowds and then thanked them after the match for fuelling him to victory while they booed him.

'The energy you're giving me right now, guys, I think it will be enough for my five next matches,' he announced as the boos rained down during his interview after a third-round win over Feliciano Lopez which saw him making an obscene gesture to the crowd. 'The more you do this, the more you will win, for you guys.'

He took a similar tack after his fourth-round win when he once again got booed, but was on (slightly) more conciliatory form after beating Stan Wawrinka in four sets in the quarterfinals.

'I have two words,' he said when asked by on-court interviewer Tom Rinaldi to describe his relationship with the US Open crowds. 

'First one, for sure, "electric". Because it's electric. And second one, "controversy". Because, it's like, what I've done is not good. So many people support me still, so many people like my interviews, so many don't like me, and I can just say, I try to be myself, guys.'

Part of not knowing what to make of Medvedev is his unusual game (in tennis, playing style = personality, or at least persona). He's 6'6" and strong despite a wiry frame, capable of generating explosive power. Yet he tends to play the grinding, junkballing style usually practiced by those who lack outright attacking options, looping and patting and slicing the ball off his forehand wing, trying to tempt or outright frustrate his opponents into errors, constantly feeding his opponents low, flat, not particularly pacey balls which are somehow difficult to attack. Eyebrows were raised when Medvedev took the court to play Djokovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January, seemingly determined to try to outlast the Serb in baseline exchanges - something which the proverbial wisdom holds to be impossible. Yet although Medvedev lost that match, he turned out to be Djokovic's toughest opponent on his way to a seventh title in Melbourne.

'It was hard to go through him; it was kind of a cat-and-a-mouse game for most of the match,' Djokovic said afterwards. 'That’s why it was so lengthy: We had rallies of 40, 45 exchanges.'

In an entertaining article for the New York Times in August, Ben Rothenberg surveyed a range of players to find out what they thought about Medvedev's game. Responses ranged from 'very smart' to 'good sloppy' to 'very, very weird'.

Medvedev and Wawrinka meet at the net after their quarterfinal (PA Sports)
This unorthodox quality has been exaggerated by Medvedev's apparent physical struggles at the US Open. From early in the tournament he's been seeking treatment during his matches for issues in his legs, thighs, glutes. Against Wawrinka, he took the court with kinesio tape on various parts of his body, then had a medical time-out in the first set for his thigh to be heavily wrapped in bandages, only to have it all removed a few games later.

'I felt the way I won was quite ugly, because that's what I had to do,' Medvedev said afterwards.

'I am still really painful in my leg. I knew I have to play without rhythm. Some games I have to not run to relax my leg. I was hitting full power, then suddenly I was doing dropshots in the middle.

'I knew I should not give him any rhythm. In crucial moments maybe it will make him miss. That's what has worked. Of course, I would prefer to win in a normal way with a normal tennis game, but that's how I won.'

At the best of times, Medvedev's game is rarely described as 'normal' anyway.

'[T]oday it was tough match because he had some problem on his leg. But still, with this, he found a way to fight and to play good tennis with this, so to put Stan maybe in trouble with no game,' Cervara said.

'You know, it's like guys didn't know how to play, because his ball seems easy to play but it's really, really tough.'

He added:

'His game is like his personality. Very different.'

It remains to be seen how Dimitrov, who unlike Medvedev has played two Grand Slam semifinals before, will react to the Russian's bamboozling game when they meet on Friday. The head-to-head between the two stands at 1-1, with Medvedev winning their last encounter on American hard courts in straight sets in August 2017. 'Clearly he's doing something right,' Dimitrov said of the Russian.

One more example of Medvedev's eccentricities which distinguish him from other players: He not only reads his own press, but freely admits to doing so - and even enjoying it.

'I just like to read media. To be honest with you, the better I play, the tougher is to read everything about me,' he said on Tuesday.

't's really surprising because before I could just read one article in one week, say, Okay. Now I don't have time to read everything, but there is a lot.[...] I like to read tennis articles. I like to read comments. It makes me feel good sometimes.'

Whatever you make of Medvedev, if he beats Dimitrov on Friday, the media - and not just the tennis media - will be making much of the fact that he is the first man from his generation to reach a Grand Slam final, perhaps heralding the long-awaited changing of the guard as tennis's ageing stars find themselves meaningfully challenged, if not replaced, by younger talents. That might be a good day to read the comments.

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Genius, rat or pantomime villain? The mystery of US Open semifinalist Daniil Medvedev

Daniil Medvedev is into his first Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open and will face Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, but many still do not know what to make of the Russian with the unusual game who likes playing possum - and playing to the crowds

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