Since the rise of Grigor Dimitrov in the 2013-2014 season, the tennis world has had its sights set on the ‘next big thing’: someone, or a group of players that will take the reins from the ‘Big 3’ of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, who as of today, share 53 Grand Slams amongst themselves and see the sport into the future.
Since then, there have been a lot of players who have been dubbed the ‘next big thing’ of tennis: it started with Grigor Dimitrov, or as the moniker went back then, Baby Fed, reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon 2014 along with Jerzy Janowicz. Then there was Nick Kyrgios, the fiery Australian, with an explosive forehand and a penchant for theatrics. He was followed by Dominic Thiem, Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev, who possessed a certain improvement over the previous Generation Dimitrov – they were more consistent with their performances.
Zverev was one of the exceptions and possessed a far superior mental game than his predecessors.
Their performances, especially with Thiem, remained consistent over the surfaces. The world kept waiting for the ‘next big thing’ with bated breath, as the Big 3 kept collecting one accolade after the other. By that time, the latest generation, Generation Tsitsipas, mainly composed of players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and Hyeon Chung, arrived, after the initial edition of the NextGen finals. There was a serious discussion about the possibility of no one being able to succeed the Big 3.
The biggest problem seems to be consistency. None of these players, none of these ‘next big things’ seem to be consistent enough to deliver on the big stage: if they can bring it in the 500 and 1000 tournaments, none of them, except Thiem in the French Open, have reached the finals of a Grand Slam.
Some of them, like Chung, are way too injury prone to be consistent, and some of them, like Zverev, Tsitsipas and Kyrgios and Dimitrov are mentally fragile, and thus tend to lose it in the big leagues. Take the final for example. Zverev was serving from 15-30 down in the first set, and he was serving at 4-5 down, which meant he was serving to stay in the set. His nerves seemed to fail, and he hit two double faults in a row, and that is where he lost the game in his head. In the next set, he was slaughtered 6-1. This is perhaps what distinguishes these newer generations from the Big 3, who, even after hitting the 30s, seem to be in their physical and mental primes. They are still consistent in their games and have maintained themselves very well, even despite being injury-prone, as in the case of Nadal.
Tennis is no longer the game of agile men. With the evolution in racket technology and the slower nature of the courts, there has been a change in the attitude to which tennis is approached as well: now, tennis is an athlete’s sport. A tennis match today is about who falls first. Rallies have gotten longer and shots have started to have more topspin in them. To a lot of players, it’s about elongating the point and tiring their opponent out, not about actually outplaying them. That requires a lot of mental and physical stamina. The first to fall loses. If you’re not consistent, history will throw you to the sidelines.
But, it seems that a dark horse has emerged. While the world was making all the noise trying to tout this player or that player as the ‘next big thing’, 23-year old Daniil Medvedev, who won the Shanghai Masters, has been working hard.
He hasn’t received the near-superstar treatment Tsitsipas or Zverev have received, he has always been on the sidelines and the cause for a handful of upsets, and up until a few weeks ago, was miles away from any discussion about the future of tennis whatsoever. With his recent string of performances, especially in the USA stretch of the tour, where he reached 6 finals in a row, winning 3 of them, it seems that he has emerged as a talking point. The biggest example of his immense talent, perhaps, would be the championship point of the Shanghai Masters. 6-4, 5-1, 40-15. Medvedev is serving from the Deuce (right) Side. He tosses the ball, and in one clean motion, hits it out wide. Zverev has no answer for it. It’s an ace. The crowd goes wild. Zverev takes his headband off and starts walking towards the net. He looks completely lost. But focus on what Medvedev is doing.
He takes the second ball out of his pocket, and nudges it towards the ball boy and makes his way towards the net. In a moment that would make any other player jump up and down with joy, he is absolutely calm. The only sort of emotion he displays during the whole post-match period is when he can’t help but hide a smile, as he walks towards the net. Otherwise, he doesn’t even look at his coach. He doesn’t even pump his fists in the air. He reacts like he’s won a first-round match. That, perhaps, sums up his attitude towards tennis and why he has become one of the fastest rising players on the tour. As he said in the post-match interview, his hard work has been paying off: he knew where to hit the next shot, even in the toughest of moments.
He has that intense quality about him: it is very easy to notice. He is not some once-in-a-generation talent like Federer or Sampras or a supernatural physical specimen like Djokovic or Nadal: all he does is giving the next shot his all. That is what makes him a rather persistent opponent. He will chase every ball down like his life depends upon it and hit it back to you. During the same match, there is another moment, if you notice it. It is one of those points where Zverev is dominating, and he’s making Medvedev run from side to side, every shot with more power than the last and getting more and more overbearing. He finally finds a short ball on his ad (left) side, and runs it down and hits a blistering backhand across the court. Medvedev not only chases the ball down, he manages to chip it back crosscourt at an angle where Zverev can get his racquet barely in and net the ball. It was one of the best shots of the match, and the grows is vociferously behind it, but again, he just asks for the towel from a ball boy and goes about the match. Perhaps no other player since Borg has shown this level of iron nerves, not even Federer.
Medvedev clearly enjoys his game, but the fact that he can play like a robot on the court adds a lot of edge to his whole package: compare him to his opponent, who has been ranked Number 3 in the world but hasn’t been able to maintain his position or even his Grand Slam record and is known for his frequent outbursts on the court.
When it comes to tennis, emotion is definitely important, but it doesn’t drive your game forward in any way. Your passion and your drive definitely help one towards greatness, but when two players are battling it out on the court, it becomes quite simply a battle of skill and wits. And the fact that Medvedev does not let passion come in his way as a player is something that is lacking from a lot of the players who have been touted as the Next Big Thing; from Kyrgios to Zverev to Tsitsipas.
His mental game is head and shoulders above his peers, and that has made him a very grave threat across the tour. The famous director Stanley Kubrick, who loved playing chess, once described it as a way to master your first impulse and think beyond it, and that is what every sport, in one way or the other, does to you. The impulse is, of course, a very important part of how the human mind has evolved to react, but we have reached a certain point in our evolution where we don’t have to be dictated by it, and that has become almost essential to our growth as a species.
For that, look no further than Novak Djokovic, who has been known for his frequent outbursts and broken racquets, but has never let it come in the way between his desire to win the match. With Medvedev, we have arrived at another player with nerves of steel, someone who can keep his head in the game at all times. A few weeks ago, he was being regularly booed out of the stadium at the US Open, and yet he could handle the hostile crowds and reach the finals of the tournament, losing in straight sets to Rafael Nadal. This mental strength is perhaps the reason why he has been able to be so consistent at Tournaments after Wimbledon: he has either won or been in the finals of the last 6 tournaments that he’s played. In comparison, The Big 3 has reached 5 finals in the year each, trailing to the World No. 4 by 4 finals.
While mental strength is an important aspect of a player’s repertoire, it is not the only thing that propels him forward. There is a certain amount of tactical acumen that he possesses, which has been made very clear by his ability to turn a lot of shots into winners. And his drop shots are things of beauty. His ability to mix up his shots seems to be on another level altogether. He reads the court well, as his performance made clear today. Zverev lies to play from deep inside the court, and Medvedev kept him on his toes by playing a lot of drop shots. Perhaps we haven’t seen a better example of pure ball striking this year from someone outside the Big 3 other than Fabio Fognini’s miracle at the Monte Carlo Masters this year.
All of Medvedev’s strikes are clean, and in proper accordance with his approach to tennis, he gives every shot his everything. The number of these sort of unexpected winners he hits is staggering every match.
Every player who has been called the future of tennis has had a meteoric rise, but perhaps this time it might turn out to be different, for now, we have the power of hindsight. Daniil Medvedev has almost all the ingredients for greatness, and this year can safely be called the year of Medvedev. We don’t know what 2020 holds for the 23-year-old from Russia, but good things seem to be on the horizon.