After winning the final tennis tournament to be held at London’s O2 Arena, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev must hope that he will defy the recent trend for champions of the Nitto ATP Finals to struggle in the ensuing season.
This trophy has been a poisoned chalice of late, starting with Andy Murray’s pyrrhic victory over Novak Djokovic here in 2016. Exhausted by his push to finish the season as world No 1, Murray soon succumbed to injury, and the pattern has continued with the next three champions – Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – all failing to advance their rankings the year after achieving career highs at the O2.
In a different world, it might be tempting to salute Medvedev’s 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 win over Dominic Thiem as a coming-of-age moment. As conclusive proof that he is ready to start winning majors.
But we have all been here too many times before to make any confident predictions. So many likely lads have shone at this event, only to be squashed by the resilience and nous of the Big Three – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – when the next year’s majors come around.
What we can say is that Sunday’s two competitors – Medvedev and Dominic Thiem – had both proved their credentials by beating a member of tennis’s holy trinity in Saturday’s semi-finals. And that hasn’t happened before here: a double setback for the big boys at such a late stage of the year.
– Has won seven matches in a row, all against Top 10 players.
– Is the first player to beat the World No.1 (Djokovic), No.2 (Nadal) and No.3 (Thiem) in the same ATP Finals.
– Is the second man in history to win the ATP Finals a year after a winless debut.
— The Tennis Podcast (@TennisPodcast) November 22, 2020
Inch by inch, the chasing pack are closing the gap. But what an incredibly slow process it has been. Prophets have been proclaiming the long-awaiting “changing of the guard” for five years or more. Yet if the Australian Open and French Open are staged on their usual dates next season, Djokovic and Nadal will go in as the respective bookies’ favourites. In fact, it’s not even close.
Never mind. Medvedev and Thiem both brought real quality to this bizarre and silent week at the O2 Arena, and sometimes made you forget that you were watching tennis in an empty arena.
This match-up was a true contrast of styles. Using the Marvel movies as an analogy, we could cast Thiem as Thor – the powerhouse with the mighty biceps – while Medvedev is more like Loki, the god of mischief, with his awkward energy and ability to confuse.
Letting rip on groundstrokes that flash though the court like cannonballs, Thiem gives the impression of a man playing on instinct. Medvedev is more of a strategic grandmaster. Like a squash player, he often seems to be thinking two or three shots ahead.
The vital switch in this final’s momentum came early in the second set. At this moment, Medvedev decided that he was giving up too much power in the baseline exchanges. His response was the same one he used to great effect against Nadal in the 2019 US Open final: to make unpredictable dashes to the net, often behind a dinky slice approach.
He is not a world-class volleyer, but his 6ft 6in frame gives him a huge wingspan, and he makes it – yes, that word again – awkward to pass him.
When Medvedev deployed this tactic in New York, Nadal saw two sets slide the wrong way, before finally digging in to snatch the title at the death. But this is only a best-of-three-set event, and Thiem was unable to find an answer in time.
“Of course I’m disappointed,” said Thiem, at the somewhat muted prizegiving that was a mournful way for London’s 12-year residency to finish. “But at the same time I’m proud of the performances of the whole week. Daniil really deserved it.”
Medvedev was also complimentary of his opponent, saying “What a match! One of my best victories, 2hr 42min against an amazing player. Your name is already in the history of tennis books [after] you won a grand slam this year.”
Perhaps this will turn into one of modern tennis’s great rivalries. It has been closely fought so far, with the score on hard courts standing at two wins apiece. But both Thiem and Medvedev, ranked No 3 and No 4 respectively, will know that they are not each other’s biggest threat. It’s is the two blokes still standing ahead of them that they need to worry about.