Many years ago, when the era of the big four was at its apex and four of the best players of all time would do battle just about every other week, their shared competitive nature would sometimes lead to mind games. One of the most obvious examples was the many discussions about which player was the favourite at any given tournament and would carry the most pressure. The players were often happy to give their opinion on the subject. Somehow, they rarely ever answered “me”.
In recent years, such comments are less common. It is most likely because they are all too old and they are more focused on themselves. But on Friday evening, as Daniil Medvedev basked in his semi-final victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas and was asked a generic question about the key to his final against Novak Djokovic, the discourse returned.
“First of all, I like that I don’t have a lot of pressure because he never lost in eight times that he was here in the final,” he said, chuckling mischievously. “It’s him who had all the pressure getting to Roger or Rafa in the grand slam [count]. As I say, he has for sure more experience but more things to lose than me.”
He is at least correct that Djokovic will be the favourite. Djokovic’s supremacy in Melbourne is probably still underrated. He has spent the past two weeks talking about his “love affair” with this tournament and Rod Laver Arena, where he is undefeated in finals. He will be bidding to win his ninth Australian Open title, which would break the tie with Roger Federer at Wimbledon as the second most titles at any men’s grand slam tournament behind Rafael Nadal’s 13 French Opens.
It will not be easy. Although Djokovic leads the head-to-head 4-3, Medvedev has won three of their last four matches, all at ATP events across best of three sets. Their last last encounter at the ATP Finals in November was particularly illuminating as Medvedev exposed a trend in Djokovic’s game that has been growing.
In recent years, Djokovic has become increasingly efficient. His first and second serve has steadily improved to become invaluable strengths. Last year he attempted to further that efficiency by incorporating more drop shots into his game, with mixed results.
But in his older age Djokovic has lost some of his patience and his willingness to grind out points. In London he just could not stay with Medvedev, who served extremely well and offered no free points. From 3-3 in the first set, he began to bail out of the bruising points with drop shots or overhit at the wrong times. The match quickly unravelled and he lost 6-3, 6-3 after generating just one break point in the match.
A grand slam final with history on the line does not compare with a three-set match in front of nobody in London. Not only will Djokovic be far more intense, consistent and present, but it remains to be seen whether Medvedev is able to maintain his level against him over five sets. After a week of discussing his injury problems sustained in his third round match against Taylor Fritz, Djokovic indicated that he was playing without pain. If he is, he will be ready.
What is certain is that Medvedev is not the only player to provide a sharp, illuminating comment before this final. After his semi-final win against Aslan Karatsev, Djokovic was asked by Eurosport whether he feels the pressure from the young generation, most of whom are taller and more physically imposing than him. He responded with a shrug:
“Pressure is always there,” he said. “It’s part of what we do. There’s been a lot of talk about the new generations coming and taking over the three of us, but realistically that isn’t happening still. So, I mean, we can talk about it all day if you want but with all my respect about the other guys, they still have a lot of work to do. I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them. I’m gonna make them work their ass off for it.”
Djokovic has been asked about the younger players countless times over the past four years and it is difficult to remember an answer as brutally honest as that. He is correct that the younger players, who have received far more hype and media than he or his generation ever did as teenagers, still have not broken through. At 25, Medvedev is not even particularly young.
However, his change of tone probably also reflects the improvements that players like Medvedev and Tsitsipas have made. The Russian is now a clear contender. He arrives in the final on a 20-match winning streak and a win would send him to a career-high ranking of No 2 , breaking the big four’s stranglehold over the top two spots since 2005. There is no time for faint praise and needless compliments. Only for both men to step on to the court with their best foot forward.