US Open 2019: Medvedev prevents mauling by Nadal
Medvedev displayed massive courage in standing his ground in not only combating the celebrated champion but also against crowd support for Nadal; he showed immense resilience to come back from the dead to give a fight to frighten Nadal.
Rafael Nadal winning his nineteenth Grand Slam title- US Open 2019- is no big deal. His terrific tennis career is coming closer to completing a full circle; once completed, this consecrated champion circle could close entry of other contenders for the French Open at least , if not for all. His unbelievable record of winning 12 French Open titles in 14 trips is already hailed as unsurpassable in the Open era. Next highest in single major tournament is Federer (8 Wimbledon wins).
Already anointed as the ultimate King of Clay, huge halo hangs over his head and hallowed portal of Tennis Hall of Fame is hoping for hurried hanging of his portrait. Taking Diego Schwartzman’s deification of Nadal as the ‘Lion’ King, after demolishing defeat in quarter final defeat, its time now to rechristen Nadal as the God of Tennis sans feet of clay -at least for clay courts. Just see a sample from his phenomenal record : has match record of 93-2 at French open at winning percentage of 97.9 % (not once stretched to five sets in final). He is 25-0 in best of 5 matches on clay at other events with total match record in best of clay at 118-2 ( winning percentage of 98.3%) ; didn’t lose a single semi-final for clay courts for 12 years (52-0) from 2003 to 2015 and is only player to complete ‘Clay Slam’ in 2010 by winning French Open plus all three clay court Masters 1000 ( Rome, Madrid, Monte Carlo); has highest 35 Masters Series 1000 titles; only player including women side to record 400+wins on both hard and clay courts; 15 consecutive years qualification; best career winning percentage of 83.13% (966-196) compared to Djokovic’s 82.70%. Maybe he would be ranked next to Jehangir Khan who won 555 squash matches consecutively- longest winning streak by any sportsman in top level professional sports.
After showing the world, time and again, what a Superman he truly is, and now after mounting stratospheric heights of the Mount Olympus, he can now sit easy as a Super-God-elect of tennis as well. Ladbrokes would surely go broke, betting on Nadal not annihilating Federer’s record of twenty Grand Slam titles.
Purple colour worn by both Nadal and Serena, in respective finals ,was metaphorically uncanny and career defining moments of sorts for both. Nadal’s bandana and T-shirt’s colour symbolized his hitting a perfect purple patch this year ( reaching three Major finals and winning two); in contrast, Serena ‘s purple tights symbolized her seeking to strike similar purple patch in twilight of her career- a la Federer- to help equal most singles Grand Slam tennis wins ( Margaret Court’s record of 24 wins). But that colour failed to lift the sagging spirits in finals ( lost last in four major finals) . My guess is that Nadal would don the same colour in next Aussie open and Serena will skip that colour for different results reaped at the Flushing Meadows.
Men and women single finals represented another interesting metaphors ; a bubbly teenager bursting with inexhaustible youthful energy, outran and overran a legend standing at threshold of being garlanded with crowning glory of greats ; on men’s side too, a rookie coming backed with a super summer season run almost halted the golden run of another legend .
Medvedev winning the US Open on men’s side would have been like Boris Becker’s runaway win at Wimbledon in 1985.Unfortunately for him that honour was left to be repeated on the women side when an unseeded Bianca Andreescu beat Serena Williams to win her first title .
This final may be a rare instance when Nadal allowed an opponent to sneak into contention after winning two sets and leading in third; Maybe, for the first time, he committed the prohibited sin in sports- of running ahead of himself before the deed and job is done. One of the reason for Serena losing four consecutive major finals is also this; she has yet to win a set in all the four finals . Just take this US Open itself – she demolished Wang Qiang 6-1 6-0 and Elina Svitolina 6-3 6-1 Y in straight sets only to be left stranded and staring vacantly towards stands in the finals.
Medvedev displayed massive courage in standing his ground alone in not only combating the celebrated champion but also against crowd support for Nadal; he showed lion hearted temperament and mental resilience to come back from the dead to give a fight to frighten Nadal; he not only nearly broke Nadal’s tennis defences but also Nadal’s tough as nails emotional exterior, who uncharacteristically lay spread eagled after winning for some time before rushing to net for the customary handshake This was a rare occurrence as Nadal celebrates only after the customary handshake, He then sobbed seeing his successes on screen. Now we hear that Federer cried inconsolably in men’s locker room after losing the longest final at Wimbledon to Djokovic this year.
Medvedev fighting spirit, intelligent shot making and strategy have helped him experience golden summer wherein he has reached four finals with an enviable 20-3 win -loss record.
Abundant experience of playing finals, recourse to reserves and mind and muscle memory separate the champions; these helped Nadal save two critical break points on service with some extremely calculated risky shots including at nets in the fifth set. Otherwise, the match could have gone either way.
Nadal vs. Medvedev duel demonstrated both commonalities and contrasts. First the similarities: (i) both possess a reliable, and go-to-in-crisis, deceptive backhand that disguises, delays ball delivery, causing difficulty in anticipating angles of arriving balls (ii) both possess tremendous self-belief and personify a never give up fighting spirit (iii) Medvedev is irreverent and iconoclastic about tennis greats and lives with the maxim of nothing is impossible if you dream big ( much like Nadal when he burst on the tennis world) Dissimilarities : (i) Nadal is coming to exemplifying Nietzsche’s famous maxim of living the World as Will and the Man redeeming himself as a Superman (ii) unlike Nadal, Medvedev is not a rampaging conquistador conquering all who come his way (iii)unlike massive muscle mass of a man like Nadal, Medvedev has sallow skin whose softness allows it to easily stretch over longish, lanky frame; not yet known for enormous endurance or inexhaustible energy, one wonders where all the strength to stretch, skid and return shots come from ; maybe his youthful energy emanates from abundant adrenalin surging in his veins (iv) unlike Nadal’s pure physicality powering the ball to outpower opponents, Medvedev relies on an arsenal with array of old world strokes like the spin, drop, deceptive/dipping flat groundstrokes sailing just slightly over the net, varying pace and tempo (v) though both share indomitable wills and irreverent attitudes, Medvedev can be tempestuous and temperamental( conceded a match as default for racist comment in Savannah Challenger (2016) and could have been penalized in this US Open too but for chair umpire missing to see the pointed middle finger during finger-pointing with crowds (vi)unlike Nadal and many others, he seems to have plenty of time to delay shot making till the last moment- like the famous cricketer Inzamum-ul-Haq (vi) Medvedev can deceptively delay shots -like Badminton super star Lee Chong Wei or Mamota do- leaving opponent guessing (vii) though Medvedev’s endurance is far less than that of Nadal, he could more than match Nadal in baseline slugfest as third and fourth sets showed (viii)unlike Nadal pounding the course with his short stepped sprints, Medvedev is rather a feather weight category competitor- making him light footed to straddle ,stride, stretch, sprint easily (ix) except for the final set of 6-4, first two sets saw Nadal winning clinching games more due to long experience in playing the finals, finding reserves , taking calculated risks at critical levels (x) Medvedev’s game is all about finding the right rhythm, whereas Nadal’s game is all about overpowering the opponent with sheer onslaught of ominous groundstrokes as Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini found in their matches (xi) whereas the champion is balding now with all the wear and tear of over fourteen years of grinding , grueling journey, young pretender is progressively balding, Medvedev may be losing hair with young shoulders burdened with weight of expectations (xii) Medvedev’s deceptive languid and languorous body language comes across as a sharp contrast to extremely energetic bull run type of play of Nadal
For tennis world, it is like second coming of Medvedev. One hopes, Daniil Medvedev does better than Ukrainian Andriy Medvedev whose best showing was in French Open in 1995. Ukranian Medvedev was bald; Daniil Medvedev, at twenty-three, seems to be on way to being bald but one hopes he doesn’t end up having a bald record in grand Slam.
He tried every conceivable shot to shock Nada the speedster: tried outrunning him at alternate corners, hit risky shots at lines, overhead, drop, sliced low returns, body serves varying speed . Like a young Federer he has all the potential to be complete player with added advantage of having widest wing span to withstand passing shots at the net. Isner and Cilic have that too but Medvedev’s anticipation is far way superior in strategic thought.
Medvedev seems a taller version of Djokovic’s talent in reach and returns specially of service ones. He seems to have taken inspiration from top three and the way he is constantly learning, he can break through the barriers the big fours erected that barred entry of the rest in Major’s circle, in last two decades. Medvedev has sigh of becoming a better version of the ‘mosquito’ Juan Carlos Ferrero going by the body frame and court coverage.
Best part of seeing a new challenger in major finals, besides the big four is that Medvedev’s strategy helped discover few hidden doors which could help crack the code to checkmate Nadal. We know that as natural reaction, Federer and Djokovic adopted tougher strategy of trying to keep pace with Nadal’s physical play, based on blistering speed , stamina and endurance. Wiser beyond his young years, Medvedev, after losing the endurance test in first two sets, shifted gears, slowing down the tempo and pace to ruin otherwise reliable rhythm, howsoever temporarily of Nadal ; no doubt Nadal is finally showing slight slowing down in sunset years; Medvedev realized that one can’t outmuscle and outrun him and better is to upset Nadal’s steps, speed and rhythm and precision of powerful stroke play; Medvedev decided to combine outrunning him on both flanks by alternate corner line kissing shots interspersed with running back and forth on drop shots or short sliced dipping shots which can’t be converted into heavily spun trademark bread and butter forehand shots of Nadal. Can’t say code of combination lock has been completely decoded but punching of right keys has started to fight Nadal.
Medvedev’s ‘meddle not with me attitude’ has seen him hit a purple patch this summer. Please note that unlike Medvedev, young talented players like Zverev, Nick Kyrgios or Stefanos Tsitsipas have yet to reach the final of any Grand Slam tournament. Though still a baby-faced cub, Medvedev unraveled a lion-hearted fighting spirit .His coach Gilles Cervara has already stated that his ward is a talented genius with huge potential.
Not given to resting on laurels ,for last fifteen years, Nadal has been like a runaway train in tearing hurry to tear away every page of record books. And like a bullet train, he perforce took pit stop breaks, at few stations, for repairing nuts and bolts of his body. Each time he has returned recharged, rejuvenated and raring to renew rewriting every record on record.
His coaches Toni Nadal and Carlos Moya have masterfully crafted a courtcraft combining his pure physical play with pure physics to plot all possible angles and degrees on court. Very few gave him chance of lasting this long at this level; and his intensity, motivation and endurance will remain unmatched and would be taught as a perfect case study of motivation and mind over matter maxim in sports schools.
What distinguishes sporting greats from others, besides bestowing of natural talent, is their dedicated work ethic of endless practice, preparation and planning; they stretch limits of possibilities to reach peak performance. We know how Nadal trains nearly for ten hours six days a week. Stories of golf’s great Ben Hogan’s grinding schedule of practicing, till his hands bled, are legendary; in fact, the maxim ‘ if you can’t outplay them, outwork them’ defined Hogan ( Time magazine cover in Jan 10, 1949). And surely everyone has heard of Tiger Woods’ daily schedule of gymming, practicing till afternoon, resting and then again playing nine holes in afternoon, followed by short game practice again. Even Andy Murray’s practice and training schedule is famous. Undoubtedly, it is Nadal’s exhausting exercise regimen that has enhanced endurance enabling recovery from recurrent knee, ankle and foot injuries. Tiger Woods’ surgeries ( four each for knees, back) have already become part of the folklore. Even Hogan virtually came from the dead after a road accident in February 1949 to win the US Open after 16 months next year. Just to remind he had fractured left collarbone, double fracture of pelvis, a broken ankle and a chipped rib. In my view, Ben Hogan was the first Superman of competitive sports of modern era.
Nadal has always been a man of few words, communicating mostly with unblinking stares ,muted com’ons shouts, clenched fists, fist pumps and customary arms’ raises with raised index finger , with an apologetic faint smile on face ; even in mandatory post-match press interactions, he communicates through body language mostly ( shrugging, arching eyebrows, apologetic smile and almost incomprehensible mumbling ) . Unlike Djokovic or Federer, one struggles to recall an incident where a disarming smile burst forth on his face either pre , during or post-match.
Despite an intimidating physical presence and possessing attitude of not giving even an inch or concede an easy point, he is still to utter disparaging or disrespectful words against any opponent, of any ranking either before or after the match. Though on court, he plays like a prized fighter, he is a perfect gentleman personified off court or during crossover( allows first right to opponent irrespective of rand) .Only time one observed an angry streak when French ex-sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot accused him of doping – a charge bounced off when much less muscled cycling icon Lance Armstrong was caught cheating doping. Nadal fought and won the court case to close the argument forever.
Possibly due to Spain’s passionate fixation with bullfight, Nadal’s trademark entry into tennis court mimics gladiator’s entry into a dueling arena or a matador into the bull ring. Or one can say that his entry is like that of King who only acknowledges the audience after the duel is done with and opponent defeated .Not only Nadal’s demeanour, his preparation like taping fingers mimics preparation of pugilist ready to trade punches leaving him as a last man standing. HIs taped fingers act as triggers to transmit those viciously powerful top spun , ferocious forehands requiring returns which players with calibre like Michael Chang or Djokovic only can do.
Nadal oozes oodles of confidence and self-belief to see off any challenger with any arsenal . After the usual handshake and posing for joint photograph, his suppressed energy explodes, like a seething volcano, unleashing all firepower. Few have come out unscathed from his fiery onslaught. Unable to withstand the brutal onslaught, even super cool Federer ended up uncharacteristically breaking rackets in early phase . Federer being champion he is, went back to the drawing board to rework his game rather than being overwhelmed and outdone. Federer returned to renew his rivalry that has reignited the race to be the GOAT( greatest of all time) in tennis.
Looks like Nadal’s nineteenth Grand Slam win is soon going to leave not one but two GOATs ( greatest of all time)nibbling the record book pages till either one remains as the only GOAT. Going by performances of top three, it seems Nadal will overhaul the record but he still will run the risk of Djokovic overtaking them all, going by his domination when he does that on a particular year basis. The way these three are redefining competition to record new records, one forgets that Pete Sampras seemed to be waiting forever to cross the record of Roy Emerson’s twelve Grand Slam titles and then declare retirement with fourteen titles that seemed unreachable.
In these times of debate about gender parity in pay-packets, people forget to give due, if not the copyright one, to Monica Seles whose powerful groundstrokes were powered by double handed fore and backhanded shots. Much before Nadal, she was like a runaway train winning Slams ( won 8 out of 9 Grand Slam titles as a teenager) till that infamous, unfortunate back stabbing stopped her in the tracks. Unfortunately, her presence despite absence continues to be seen in ubiquitous security guard guarding players’ backs in changeovers.
Just a decade and half ago, two contenders ( Federer and Nadal) began contrasting journeys with most thinking Nadal to be like Muster, Kuerten, Vilas and Sergi Bruguera, ending up only as an undisputed tennis god with feet of clay embedded in clay-courts only. Maybe the inspired run of Federer fuelled Nadal’s natural instinct of loving the fight and living up to a challenge. It is to Nadal’s credit that his indominable spirit, undying fighting attitude, endless practice . inexhaustible endurance, pure physical power has helped transcend limits of earlier Spanish players and pose as a potential prize winner of all-time records in tennis. He simply loves a challenging fight be its own body or anybody. His career exemplifies umpteenth times he has come back resuscitated and rejuvenated ( this year US Open after injury), from both bodily and mental meltdown ( separation of his parents). He has also modified his massive muscle mass load to a minimum mean to help movement and has also altered his arsenal with improved service and early taking of shots . This indicates his willingness to adapt and alter his arsenal and array of shots. Federer had only to work on his left hand’s weak handed returns to overcome challenge but bodily he has remained the same.
After seeing the big four win 54 of 59 Grand Slam titles in last decade and a half, Medvedev was a like a fresh air arousing anticipation again of the arrival of final challenger to break their stronghold. One has waited for Zverev, Tsitsipas,Kyrgios ,Theim, Raonic, Dmitriov for long; hope Medvedev goes a step further.