For the second straight year, Novak Djokovic will face a promising young gun standing in the way of more glory in the Australian Open final.
Daniil Medvedev, like Dominic Thiem in 2020, has been knocking on the Grand Slam door for a long time. The 25-year-old has become the most consistent of his generation, coming into the final in red-hot form and solid hard-court pedigree.
Djokovic says going unbeaten in eight Australian Open finals will give him confidence in Sunday’s decider, but he’ll need more than that to overcome the Russian who has become “the man to beat” in the Serb’s own words.
The world No 1 is into his ninth decider at Melbourne Park but it has been a rollercoaster ride to get there, with Djokovic uncharacteristically dropping five sets as he battled an abdominal injury that nearly forced him to pull out.
On the other hand, Medvedev has dropped just two sets and is unbeaten since last November, that includes a straight-set drubbing of the Serb at the ATP Finals in London. He has won the Paris Masters, ATP Finals and ATP Cup during this run, the latter two being a tournament where only the cream compete.
Twelve of his 20 straight wins have been against top-10 players and in these, he has beaten every top-10 player except Roger Federer, who has been out injured. In fact, he has won three of his last four against the 17-time Grand Slam-winner and pushed him to a fourth set in their previous meeting here. He also has some experience at the level, pushing Rafael Nadal to five sets in his first Grand Slam final at the 2019 US Open.
Head-to-head: Djokovic leads 4-3
2020 ATP Finals, London, round-robin: Medvedev bt Djokovic 6-3, 6-3
2020 ATP Cup, Sydney, semi-final: Djokovic bt Medvedev 6-1, 5-7, 6-4
2019 Cincinnati, semi-final: Medvedev bt Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 6-3
2019 Monaco, quarter-final: Medvedev bt Djokovic 6-3, 4-6, 6-2
2019 Australian Open, round of 16: Djokovic bt Medvedev 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2, 6-3
2017 Eastbourne semi-final: Djokovic bt Medvedev 6-4, 6-4
2017 Davis Cup, World Group Round 1, Nis, Serbia: Djokovic bt Medvedev 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 1-0 ret
But playing Djokovic on his virtual home turf in a Major final is a whole different ball game.
Djokovic battled into the final despite injury
The Serb heads into the showpiece with the phenomenal record of never losing a final on Melbourne’s famous blue courts in eight attempts spanning 13 years. Djokovic will also be playing his 28th Grand Slam final, in contrast to the Russian’s second.
The 33-year-old, who swept past qualifier Aslan Karatsev in the semi-finals, said while the experience was clearly an advantage, Medvedev was also in electric form.
The world No 1’s chance of taking a record-extending ninth Australian Open crown looked in jeopardy just over a week ago when he suffered a potentially tournament-ending abdominal injury in the third round against Taylor Fritz.
But he battled back with the help of painkillers to win in five sets and his injury has improved remarkably since, despite not training between matches. After his semi-final, Djokovic said he was feeling better than at any time during the past fortnight as he prepares to defend his crown.
An 18th Grand Slam singles title would leave him just two behind the all-time record shared by Nadal and Federer, added motivation if ever was needed any more.
Medvedev has the weapons but has also put in the work
Medvedev has played down his chances but has the weapons to trouble Djokovic. A big serve, unrelenting returns, and exceptional movement make his game style almost a match. In his straight-sets drubbing of Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-final, he also showed that he can bolster his solid defence with an ability to change track and attack as well
The tall Russian has grown into not only of men’s tennis’s best players and premier athletes but also among the smartest. As commentator Jim Courier put it this week: “He’s a master chess player on court”.
After losing the five-set 2019 US Open final despite having chances, he has worked hard on his game and fitness to race through the rankings. At a career-high ranking of four and set to rise further after the final, he has come to terms with his immense potential.
Before his rise in 2019, he could let his emotions get in the way and never shied away from admitting he did not do everything as professionally as possible. He competed hard and did his work on the practice court, but his diet and recovery routines were not what they should be, with the 25-year-old enjoying sweets and croissants. And if a long match went late, he would often skip the ice bath. But Medvedev, nicknamed Bear, has changed and it has paid dividends.
In a match-up like this confidence and quick-thinking will be key and Medvedev has both.
It has seen him emerge as the frontrunner for his generation. He beat Thiem, the first 1990s player to break the Major barrier when he won the US Open 2020, in a gritty three-setter to lift the ATP Finals – his biggest trophy. Incidentally, Thiem had downed him in straight sets at Flushing Meadows during a below-par post-pandemic run for the Russian. But once he found his rhythm in Paris, he hasn’t looked back.
He even issued a low-key warning to Djokovic saying the pressure is on him as he races Federer and Nadal for the Grand Slam record.
The challenge though is to beat the most successful man at Rod Laver Arena in a best-of-five match at the highest level.
Novak Djokovic’s path to the final:
1st rd: bt Jeremy Chardy (FRA) 6-3, 6-1, 6-2
2nd rd: bt Frances Tiafoe (USA) 6-3, 6-7 (3/7), 7-6 (7/2), 6-3
3rd rd: bt Taylor Fritz (USA x27) 7-6 (7/1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2
4th rd: bt Milos Raonic (CAN x14) 7-6 (7/4), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4
Quarter-final: bt Alexander Zverev (GER x6) 6-7 (6/8), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (8/6)
Semi-final: bt Aslan Karatsev (RUS) 6-3, 6-4, 6-2
Daniil Medvedev’s path to the final:
1st rd: bt Vasek Pospisil (CAN) 6-2, 6-2, 6-4
2nd rd: bt Roberto Carballes (ESP) 6-2, 7-5, 6-1
3rd rd: bt Filip Krajinovic (SRB x28) 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-0
4th rd: bt Mackenzie McDonald (USA) 6-4, 6-2, 6-3
Quarter-final: bt Andrey Rublev (RUS x7) 7-5, 6-3, 6-2
Semi-final: bt Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE x5) 6-4, 6-2, 7-5
The match will be broadcast on Sony Sports Network in India, starting at 2 pm IST.
With AFP Inputs