Australian Open 2021

Master chess player v maestro

Medvedev, on 20-win run, faces world No. 1 Djokovic and has won 3 of their last 4 matches

MELBOURNE • Confidence is king and Daniil Medvedev has plenty of it, with the Russian morphing into not just one of tennis' best players, but also among the smartest.

The 1.98m player, 25, has emerged at the forefront of the next wave looking to smash the "Big Three" monopoly of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Since losing to Nadal in the 2019 US Open final, he has worked hard. He goes into today's Australian Open final against Djokovic on a run of 20 wins, demonstrating his mental and physical stamina.

Enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 4, he has come to terms with his immense potential.

Before his rise in 2019, he would let his emotions get in the way and admitted he did not do everything as professionally as possible.

He competed hard, but his diet and recovery routines were not what they should be; he enjoyed sweets and croissants. If a long match went late, he would skip the ice bath.

"I thought it was going to be the best rest, to just lay on the bed and watch some TV. And in fact, it's not," he said last year.

But his change has paid dividends. In his 20-match run, he has beaten every top-10 player except Federer, who has been out injured.

When informed of this, he replied: "It's great to know this. It's a pity that Roger is not playing," suggesting he was also confident of taking the Swiss maestro's scalp.

Medvedev is an intelligent man. He excelled in physics and maths at school, graduating early and enrolling at a university in his native Moscow to study applied economics and commerce.

He opted instead to play tennis full-time, moving to the south of France to benefit from its high-quality coaching and facilities.

Fluent in Russian and English, he is also often heard conversing in French with coach Gilles Cervara.

Medvedev keeps opponents guessing with his flat and low groundstrokes, while changing pace and angles, blending impenetrable defence with sharp offence.

While he has refined his game, a key rule still applies and that is to "fight like crazy", a trait drilled into him by one of his first tennis coaches when he was a small boy.

"Her golden rule was, 'The one who wins the match is the one who made more balls over the net', it's easy to understand," he said.

The Russian has won three of his last four against Djokovic but is wary of the 17-time Slam winner.

He said: "Playing Novak seven times already is just a huge experience. (But) I think when he's in the zone he doesn't miss. He goes down the line, cross, forehand, backhand, he doesn't miss. That's is the toughest part."

Djokovic, meanwhile, has admitted statistics count for nothing today, even if he is unbeaten in eight Australian Open finals.

The Serb will also be playing his 28th Grand Slam final, in contrast to Medvedev's second.

But the 33-year-old Serb said that while experience was clearly an advantage, his opponent was also in electric form, deeming Medvedev "the man to beat".

"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 said.

"You know, he's definitely a very smart tennis player."

Former world No. 2 Alex Corretja, now a Eurosport pundit, believes it will be a tight match.

He said: "I think they are going to kill each other. I am expecting a very long match, both play a very similar game style.

"They both need their serves, their backhands are both unbelievable. I think they will play like a mirror to each other, unbelievable back-hand cross court, they change down the line, both great competitors."



Finals: Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, noon & 4pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2021, with the headline 'Master chess player v maestro'. Subscribe