If Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev were trash-talking boxers rather than cagey Australian Open finalists, both men would be claiming favouritism rather than determinedly deflecting it ahead of Sunday night’s fascinating title bout.
Instead, from world No.1 Djokovic, who is unbeaten in his eight singles finals at Melbourne Park: “Medvedev is playing on an extremely high quality. He’s on a winning match streak, over 20 matches won. He’s just the man to beat, you know.’’
These words uttered, and the last line repeated, before he even knew it was Medevev he would definitely play.
And from the Russian fourth seed, the 2019 US Open runner-up who has won his past 12 matches against fellow top-tenners, including nine since November: “I like that I don’t have a lot of pressure, because he never lost in eight times that he was here in the final, so it’s him that has all the pressure, getting to Roger or Rafa in the grand slam (record books).”
These words before Medvedev had even left Rod Laver Arena following a straight sets semi-final defeat of crowd favourite Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday night.
The theme continued in the media room, with Medvedev repeating that he was happy to be the “challenger”; although an “outsider” not so much. And okay, well, yes, both players will be feeling some pressure, he said, given that Medvedev is chasing his first major; Djokovic his 18th. But only one of the duo, apparently, has anything to lose.
No argument, though, that Sunday’s should be a compelling and physical contest between two athletes in peak form. The relentless Djokovic we have so seen many times before, but Medvedev’s considerable powers are blossoming, as a weary Tsitsipas can attest.
“He’s a player who has unlocked pretty much everything in the game,’’ said the Greek, the world’s No.6, who admitted he “would not be surprised” by a Medvedev breakthrough.
“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 amazing baseline (skills) which makes it extremely difficult.
“So he makes it very difficult, and I’m sure all the hard work that he has been putting and the hours on the court have benefited a lot. He tricks you. You know, he plays the game really smart. It’s really interesting to see that.’’
Djokovic has witnessed it, too. Seven times, first-hand, but the five most relevant have come in the two years since the Monte Carlo neighbours have also shared residence in the top 10. Of those, Medvedev has won three.
The Russian chameleon places little store in head-to-head records that are not decisively one-sided, but does expect the fact he has experienced a major decider once before – a five-set loss to Rafael Nadal at the 2019 US Open – to count for plenty. He got tight at times in New York, he admits, but a valuable deposit of experience was banked.
He knows what awaits. Qualifier Aslan Karatsev had it confirmed in their semi-final: no free points. “He’s super-clutch when he needs to be,’’ said Frances Tiafoe, while Alexander Zverev declared that one of the most difficult tasks in tennis is holding your serve against the game’s supreme returner.
Having served exceptionally well against Tsitsipas and hit a miraculous backhand pass that was one of the shots of his career, Medvedev admitted that the toughest part about playing the Serb when he is “in the zone” is that he simply does not miss. “I think that’s where I should be good also, and that’s where my game is good,’’ he said.
“So that’s why some matches that we played are really, I think, unbelievable matches … (a) few times I saw the highlights, and I was, like, ‘Wow! This level is unbelievable’. That’s what I have to do to keep up with him on Sunday, because as we saw already yesterday and as he said, he’s not gonna hand (me) anything, so need to be at my best.
“I like to play against Novak. Since the first one when I was ranked 60, we had always tough matches physically, mentally. And he’s one of the greatest tennis players in the history of tennis. So playing final against him is superb. I’m really happy about it. Let’s see what happens on Sunday.’’
Having spent an extra four-and-a-half hours on court than Medvedev, but with an extra recovery day, Djokovic is no longer hindered by the mysterious abdominal injury he suffered in the third round, as he seeks to draw within two majors of all-time leaders Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
And record-chasing, he admits, can become a heavy weight. Since claiming slam No.17 here last January, the 33-year-old suffered a shock disqualification at a US Open that was his to lose, and then a limp finals defeat against Nadal at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard’s phenomenal record is 100-2.
But note that Djokovic is 81-8 at the Australian Open. Astonishing, too.
How is it so?
“First, I think, as any other tennis player at the beginning of the season, I really want to get off the blocks and start the season in the best possible way. So I’m fresh, I’m motivated, I’m inspired to play my best tennis. It’s one of the reasons,” he said.
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) February 18, 2021
“Then of course the surface, the conditions, especially night matches, are very suitable to my style of play, and I just somehow always manage to find the best game when it mattered the most. The more I win, the better I feel coming back each year. I think it’s kind of also logical to expect that. The love affair keeps going.’’
Still, a red-hot and much-improved Medvedev will take some beating, his racquet can be a magic wand. Djokovic’s critique: “He has a big serve. For a tall guy, he moves extremely well. Forehand maybe was his weaker shot, but he has improved that, as well. Backhand is as good as it gets.
“He’s so solid. He doesn’t give you much. But he’s not afraid nowadays to attack and get to the net and take it to his opponents. He’s just so solid. Also, I heard Jim Courier calling him a master chess player because of the way he tactically positions himself on the court, and it’s true. He’s definitely very smart tennis player.’’
If he is also a grand slam champion on Monday, then the youngest man to have won the title since Djokovic in 2008 will also be the first not named Roger, Rafa or Novak to be ranked in the top two since Lleyton Hewitt in mid-2005.
All of which might just be a good thing for tennis – if obviously not for the undisputed King of Melbourne Park.
“Why not?,’’ said Tsitsipas, who has watched Federer, Nadal and Djokovic share 57 majors since 2003 Wimbledon, when only six other men have landed a knockout punch. “You know, spice it up a little bit, change the name list. Wouldn’t be bad.’’