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Victorious Medvedev, valiant Tsitsipas are the shape of things to come
Each has displayed an eclectic and pleasing range of assets that give great hope for the future.
February 19, 2021
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Though Medvedev currently holds the upper hand versus Tsitsipas—he’s now 6-1 in their rivalry—here’s hoping this will be the first of many times these two engaging stylists play one another in the late stages of a major.
As Medvedev and Tsitsipas have risen up the ranks, each has displayed an eclectic and pleasing range of assets that give great hope for the future. In sharply different ways, each reveals tennis’ bias towards extensive and even quirky amounts of independence. This clearly is a sport for outliers.
In large part, each is reminiscent of people I knew in college.
Medvedev is a mathematics grad student, a supreme problem-solver, equipped with a remarkable ability to sort through numbers, theorems and spatial patterns. It’s easy to picture Medvedev spending hour after hour in blissful solitude, staring at a chalkboard as he concocts new answers to questions few know even exist. “He tricks you,” says Tsitsipas. “You know, he plays the game really smart. It’s really interesting to see that.”
Tsitsipas is pure humanities, an undergraduate philosophy major in the pursuit of great truth who relishes the chance to share that quest with others. There the earnest Stefanos is at a café, a paperback in his backpack, scribbling in his journal and initiating a conversation with the person two tables over. On sunny days, he prefers to juggle in the quad.
One factor that makes these two so compelling is that their styles each have so much texture—high energy, diverse shot-making—that their matches are exciting no matter who’s across the net.
Tsitsipas gave a thoughtful description of Medvedev’s genius.
“He has this amazing serve which I would describe close to John Isner’s serve,” said Tsitsipas. “And then he has amazing baseline which makes it extremely difficult. So even if you return the serve, you don’t guarantee that you’re going to win the point. You have to really work hard for it.”
Then there’s Tsitsipas, calibrating his mix of aggression and patience, keen to win points with a style that conjures memories of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. As Tsitsipas once said, “Don’t wait for opportunity. Create it.”
Added to that is the way each continues to advance his story line.
Treacherous as Medvedev can be, only during this fortnight did he at last win a five-setter, after having lost his first six. That breakthrough happened in the third round, Medvedev beating Filip Krajinovic, 6-0 in the fifth. Since then, he hasn’t dropped a set.
Tsitsipas also had a significant five-set win that, at least to some degree, exorcised a past Slam demon. At the US Open, he led Borna Coric 5-1 in the fourth, only to see six match points vanish and end up losing. Potentially devastating as that defeat might have been, Tsitsipas rebounded rapidly. At Roland Garros, he reached the second Slam semi of his career. Even bigger rewards came in Melbourne. After dropping the first two sets of his quarterfinal versus Rafael Nadal, Tsitsipas squeaked out the third in a tiebreaker and earned the victory with a lively mix of aggression.
These two have added considerable spice to men’s tennis. Don’t get me wrong, I admire Alexander Zverev and have been impressed by the strides he’s taken with his tennis over the last year. I greatly enjoy watching the all-court excellence and business-like manner Dominic Thiem (econ major?) brings to the game. Soon enough, it appears, such young hopefuls as Jannik Sinner and, perhaps a bit further down the road, Sebastian Korda, will begin to make a major mark too. Yes, there will be rich tennis after the Big Three.
But for now, the players I’m most eager to watch are Medvedev and Tsitsipas.