It is a commonly held opinion that tennis is one of the sports in which the psychological component weighs the most during matches. Proof of that is, for example, that Timothy Gallwey, one of the fathers of Business and Life Coaching, was inspired by his experience as a tennis coach in writing his best seller “The inner game of tennis”, published in 1974 and in some ways still very relevant today. In more recent times, even Agassi and Panatta have insisted a lot on this aspect in their autobiographies, with the italian using this concept in the title of his book, stating boldly that “tennis was invented by the devil”.
This close connection between what happens on the court and what happens in the mind of the players often leads to proverbial statements that, it can be said, are viewed as conventional wisdom. For example, it is believed that, precisely for psychological reasons, the seventh game, in a set tied at 3-3, is particularly important because it breaks the balance just when the set enters its bottom half. Or, again, it is commonly believed that, particularly in a match that goes to the fifth set, the first player serving has an advantage in the decisive set, thus causing in the opponent the unpleasant feeling of chasing at a time when the match is about to end.
The growing availability of structured data related to ATP matches allows us to put these claims to the test, and to verify their veracity. For this purpose, we will consider all of the men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments of the last decade, from 2011 to 2021. Considering this huge database, let’s start by asking ourselves the first question: does the one player who wins the seventh game on a 3-3 tied set win the set in the end?
THE 7TH GAME
At a first glance, it would be tempting to answer in the affirmative. In fact, in 54.3% of cases whoever goes 4-3 by winning the seventh game ends up winning the set. But to attest to the validity of this first superficial observation it might seems appropriate to ask ourselves, more specifically, whether gaining the advantage at that particular moment is more significant or helpful than doing it slightly earlier, or slightly later. In other words: does winning the seventh game at 3-3 carry more weight than winning the ninth game at 4-4, or the fifth game at 2-2?
The set is won by whoever wins the ninth game after a 4-all in 53.6% of cases. Comparable, but slightly lower than the 54.3% recorded for the seventh-game-case in a tied set. Considering that the ninth game is closer to the ending of the set, winning a game in that situation should have a bigger impact. Therefore it would be tempting to identify a correlation, albeit not particularly strong, between the vin in the seventh game at 3-3 and winning the set. Before getting to any conclusion, however, let’s repeat the analysis, this time examining the fifth game at 2-2.
Perhaps a little surprisingly, we find that, at 2-2, the set is won in 56.7% of cases by whoever wins the fifth game. Although this game takes place further away from the end of the set, it seems to have a greater effect on the final outcome of the set. Although this fact alone is not proof in debunking the myth of the seventh game, this simple analysis has perhaps the merit of generating some doubts and some more curiosity, bringing to the forefront a hypothesis that comes from experience in more direct touch with the data. Let’s try to apply this logic to another statement as well: it’s better to serve first in the final set.
SERVING FIRST IN THE DECIDER
Let’s focus on the 728 Grand Slam matches that have reached the fifth set over the last ten years. Indeed, the percentage of cases in which whoever served first in these 728 occasions won the set (and, consequently, the match) is greater than 50%: to be precise, the count is 380 cases (52.2% of the total). Looking back, we can consider that, if such an advantage really exists, it is reasonable to expect it to be greater in the case of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, which, for a large part of the period considered, did not provide have final set tie-breaks or super tie-breaks, with (possible) prolongation of the psychological pressure on whoever is serving second.
Indeed, 310 of the 576 matches of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon of the last 10 years in the fifth set were won by the player who served first: 53.8% of the total. A higher percentage, therefore, than the one observed also considering the US Open’ s data. We can therefore say that, in this case, at least for this analysis’ sake, there seems to be a correspondence between conventional wisdom and actual data.
Let’s now move on to the critical analysis of a third consideration, common indeed, but not necessarily supported by the data: in a hard-fought match, whoever wins the most games who go to deuce will win the match in the end.
To analyse this statement, and to measure its coherence with the trend of men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments over the last ten years, let’s first focus on the matches with at least ten games that went to 40-40. This will allow us to focus on the statistically more significant data. Winning ten deuce games out of ten (100% of them), for example, has a different weight than winning the only one who went the distance.
Preparing the dataset for analysis, we can see that in the last ten years 2,050 men’s singles matches have been characterized by at least ten hard-fought games. To evaluate whether, starting from this subset of games, the victory of the games with advantage points is significantly linked to match wins, let’s try to use a different graphic representation: the box-plot.
The box plot represents the statistical distribution of a variable, in this case the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of the match for the 2,050 matches considered. A commonly used concept, in the analysis of statistical distributions, is that of the percentile. Let’s imagine we order the hard-fought-game percentages won by the winners of the 2,050 matches considered in ascending order. Match number 205 of this ordered list would be classified as the to the 10th percentile of the distribution (given that 205/2050 = 0.1 = 10%). In the box plot, we see a thin yellow bar to identify the fiftieth percentile, also called the median of the distribution. If the percentage of deuce games won was particularly significant, we would expect a median value, for the winners of the matches, greater than 50% – but this is not the case.
Not just that: the green colored area of the box-plot defines the range within which the “central” 50% of the distribution is found. That is, the lower end of the green colored area coincides with the twenty-fifth percentile of the distribution, the upper end with the seventy-fifth. We observe that the central band of the distribution has the same excursion towards the lower extreme (50% -36.4% = 13.6%) than the upper one (63.6% -50% = 13.6%).
As a further check, let’s ask the data the same question once again, using a different survey tool: the ROC curve.
We will ask ourselves, this time, if there are thresholds (not necessarily 50%) of 40-40 games that can become decisive for the match win. Once again, for the reasons already mentioned, we will focus on matches with at least ten hard-fought games. To conduct this type of analysis, we can use the ROC curve.
To trace it, we will proceed as follows:
- every possible threshold value is considered in terms of percentage of deuce games won, starting from 0% up to 100%
- for each of these values (let’s take 10% for example) we ask ourselves: how accurate would it be to say that whoever wins more than 10% of the game at the advantages wins the match?
- the answer to this question is analysed using two components: sensitivity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified victories) and specificity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified losses)
- each threshold can therefore be represented as a point, drawn in a chart in which the vertical axis is represented by the wording “Sensitivity” and the horizontal axis represented by “Specificity”
- by connecting these points, a curve can be drawn, called ROC curve (Receiver Operating Curve)
- it can be shown that the area included under this curve, called AUC (Area Under the Curve) equals to the probability that, given a pair of matches (match 1 and match 2), the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of match 1 is greater than the percentage of deuce games won by the loser of match 2.
The more the AUC approaches to the value of 1, the more the element considered (in this case the percentage of deuce games won) is relevant compared to the target (the match win). We observe that, in this case, the AUC is equal to 0.504, just above 50%. The lack of relevance of deuce games supremacy therefore seems to be confirmed.
Let’s now try to ask ourselves if, indeed, as is often supposed, the victory of the first set is often decisive, especially for the underdog player.
THE FIRST SET IS KEY, ESPECIALLY FOR THE WEAKER PLAYER
The matches in which the winner of the first set has a better ATP ranking at the end of the season is represented by the green bars of the histogram, the other matches are represented by the red bars. So let’s ask ourselves if, especially in a Grand Slam tournament, considering the men’s singles matches only and therefore a three out of five set match, the victory in the first set is relevant and, more specifically, let’s try to understand if this consideration is more valid for players who face an opponent of greater clout, or with a better ATP ranking.
First of all, we observe that 2,271 of the 2,902 matches considered ended with the victory of the player who won the first set: in other words, in 78.2% of cases whoever won the first set also won the match. This is by far the strongest pattern explored in this article. For example, if we consider the effect of ranking on the outcome of the match, we observe that in 2,238 cases out of 2,902 (i.e. in 77.1% of cases) the match is won by that player who, at the end of the season, will occupy a better position in the ATP ranking. In other words, the victory of the first set seems to “weigh” even more (albeit slightly) than the ranking in the outcome of the match.
And, as conventional wisdom teaches, the combination of the two factors is even more predictive of the name of the match winner. In fact, if the first set is won by the lower ranked player, the opponent will manage to get away with it in 30% of cases (196 matches out of 664). If, on the other hand, the better-ranked player takes the first set, then his opponent seems to have less than a 20% chance of reversing the situation (435 cases out of 2238).
This is what the data tell us, which, as always, we try to approach with a critical eye. That is, always keeping in mind Henri Poincarè, according to whom “science is made of data as a house is made of stones. But a mass of data is no more science than a pile of stones is a real house.”
Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa
Cameron Norrie’s Surprise Win at Indian Wells Could Land Him a Well-Deserved ATP Finals Berth
As Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev disappointed, the Brit (along with Basilashvili, Dimitrov and Fritz) were ready to seize the day
We have grown accustomed across the last bunch of decades to the most important tournaments in tennis being controlled by an elite cast of competitors. That has been the case not only at the Grand Slam events but also at the Masters 1000 showcase championships. While there has been a large degree of predictability associated with these prestigious gatherings of great players, that has been comforting for followers of the sport who have embraced familiarity.
And yet, every once in a while there is no harm when a big tournament produces startling results and a semifinal lineup that no one could have foreseen. That is precisely what happened this past week in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. For the first time at a Masters 1000, not a single player ranked among the top 25 in the world made it to the penultimate round. The semifinalists were none other than Great Britain’s Cam Norrie (No. 26), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 28), Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (No. 36), and Taylor Fritz of the United States (No. 38). Their seedings were somewhat better because some top players did not compete at Indian Wells. Norrie was seeded No. 21, Basilashvili No. 29, Dimitrov No. 23 and Fritz No. 31.
These rankings and seedings were almost unimaginable, but all of these players deserved to be in the forefront. The left-handed Norrie took apart Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in the opening semifinal with surgical precision and uncanny ball control, and then Basilashvili followed with an overpowering 7-6(5) 6-3 performance in eclipsing Fritz. Here were four distinctive players displaying their collective talent proudly on the hard courts in California. Outside of Roger Federer, Dimitrov may well be the most elegant player of the past twenty years with his well crafted running forehand plus his spectacular and versatile one-handed backhand. Norrie is cagey, resourceful, disciplined and versatile. His forehand carries a significant amount of topspin and can bound up high while his two-handed backhand is fundamentally flat. His serve is strategically located and reliably precise. He is a tennis player’s tennis player.
Fritz combines considerable power with remarkable feel. He serves potently and places it awfully well. He is a constantly improving craftsman with a wide arsenal of shots. And Basilashvili is the biggest hitter in tennis, pounding the ball relentlessly off both sides, unleashing forehand winners from anywhere on the court almost at will, never backing off from his goal of blasting opponents off the court.
So all four semifinalists were worthy of getting that far. Moreover, it was fitting that Norrie and Basilashvili would square off in the final. Norrie has celebrated a stellar 2021 campaign. This was his sixth final of the season and he had already amassed 46 match wins coming into the final. Norrie has made immense strides as a match player all year long, and he was poised to put himself in this position. He is a masterful percentage player cut from a similar cloth to Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Norrie measures his shots impeccably, giving himself an incessantly healthy margin for error, refusing to miss by being reckless or narrow minded.
Basilashvili is made of different stock. He had lost in the first round in five of six Masters 1000 events this season because he misses so much with his risky shots. When he gets on a roll, Basilashvili is an exceedingly dangerous player who can make the most difficult shots look easy. But he can also beat himself and is often his own worst enemy with his obstinacy. Basilashvili lost his last nine matches of 2020. Norrie is at the opposite end of the spectrum with his consistency and methodology, understanding his limitations, always obeying the laws of percentage tennis.
The contrasting styles of the two finalists made it an intriguing confrontation. But, in the end, Norrie withstood a barrage of big hitting from Basilashvili, refused to get rattled by the explosive shotmaking of his adversary, and ultimately prevailed 3-6 6-4 6-1 to claim the most important title of his career. It was a fascinating final in many ways as Norrie opened up an early lead before Basilashvili found his range, but then the British competitor reasserted himself over the last set-and-a-half with cunning play down the stretch as the wind force increased and Basilashvili faltered flagrantly.
Norrie moved ahead 3-1 in the opening set but then the Georgian held easily and broke back for 3-3 on a double fault from the British No. 1. Basilashvili promptly held for 4-3 at love. He had won three consecutive games, and clearly the complexion of the set was changing significantly. Norrie realized he was in jeopardy but was unable to halt Basilashvili’s momentum. The British competitor was broken again in the eighth game as Basilashvili released two outright winners. On break point an angled forehand crosscourt from the Russian coaxed an error from his left-handed adversary. Serving for the set at 5-3, Basilashvili was totally composed and confident. He held at love with an ace for 40-0 and then a dazzling forehand down the line winner.
Not only had Basilashvili taken the set on a run of five consecutive games, but he had also swept 20 of 25 points in that spectacular span. When Basilashvili broke for a 2-1 second set lead, he seemed entirely capable of driving his way to victory behind an avalanche of blazing winners. But Norrie refused to lose optimism. Basilashvili suddenly lost both his range and his rhythm off the ground, particularly on his signature forehand side. Four unforced errors off that flank cost him the fourth game and allowed Norrie back on serve.
But Basilashvili was persistent, working his way through a couple of arduous service games on his way to 4-4. Nevertheless, Norrie was unswayed by his opponent’s fighting spirit. The British player held at love for 5-4 in that pivotal second set with a drop shot winner and then broke at love to seal the set with his finest tennis of the afternoon. On the first point of the tenth game, Norrie lobbed over Basilashvili into the corner and took the net away from his opponent. Although Basilashvili chased that ball down, turned and unleashed a potent backhand crosscourt pass that came over low, Norrie was ready, making a difficult forehand drop volley winner that had the California crowd gasping. On the next point, Norrie released a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line. Consecutive forehand mistakes from a shaken Basilashvili allowed Norrie to break at love to salvage the set 6-4 on a run of eight points in a row.
The left-hander was in command now, taking the first two games of the third set confidently. He then trailed 0-40 in the third game. But Norrie responded to this precarious moment commendably, collecting five points in a row to hold on for 3-0, demoralizing Basilashvili in the process. Basilashvili self destructed at this critical juncture of the match, giving all five points away with a cluster of errors. But Norrie was also outstanding on defense in that stretch.
The match was essentially over. Although Basilashvili fended off a break point in the fourth game of that third set, Norrie sedulously protected his lead thereafter, capturing 12 of 16 points and three consecutive games to close out the account with a flourish. From 4-4 in the second set, Norrie had won eight of the last nine games and his first Masters 1000 crown. Norrie started the year at No. 71 in the world but now stands deservedly at No. 16 following his astonishing triumph at Indian Wells. It was a job awfully well done, and he was a worthy winner in the end.
But I must add that the three top seeds at Indian Wells all failed to perform up to their expectations. Let’s start with Medvedev, the top seed in the absence of Djokovic. He confronted Dimitrov in the round of 16 and was leading 6-4, 4-1. Medvedev was up two service breaks in that second set. He seemed certain to prevail but performed abysmally thereafter. At 4-1, he opened the sixth game with a double fault and then double faulted again at 15-40. Dimitrov held easily in the seventh game and then Medvedev was broken in the eight game after missing five out of six first serves.
Now Dimitrov held at love and then Medvedev started the tenth game of the second set with another double fault. He lost his serve for the third time in a row and thus conceded the set 6-4 after dropping five consecutive games and 20 of 26 points. Medvedev missed 15 of 17 first serves at the end of that pendulum swinging set.
Dimitrov raced to 3-0 in the third, later advanced to 5-1, and eventually came through 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Medvedev imploded. To be sure, Dimitrov was magnificent in many ways, particularly with his running forehand. But Medvedev was his own worst enemy and his attitude was reminiscent of the man we witnessed in years gone by who was often mercurial. He was infuriated with himself and his situation, competing irregularly, smashing his racquet, advertising his vulnerability.
Meanwhile, No.2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to reignite his game after losing early at the US Open, but the Greek stylist struggled inordinately in every match he played before Basilashvili ousted him 6-4 2-6 6-4 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Tsitsipas was trying to manufacture some emotions that simply were not there. He was out of sorts and off his game. At 3-3 in the final set, down break point, fighting hard but playing poorly, Tsitsipas double faulted and never really recovered. It may take him quite some time to recover his best form after a debilitating year.
And what of Sascha Zverev? Here was a man who had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then secured the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open but seemed to be ready to take the title at Indian Wells after reaching the quarterfinals. But Zverev wasted a 5-2 final set lead against Fritz.
Zverev had a match point in the eighth game on Fritz’s serve that the American saved stupendously. Zverev had sent a deep crosscourt forehand into the corner that seemed unanswerable but Fritz took it early on the half volley and flicked it down the line to rush Zverev into an error. In the following game, serving for the match at 5-3, Zverev double faulted at 30-15 but still advanced to 40-30 with a second match point at his disposal. Once more, he double faulted. In the end, after Zverev served another damaging double fault on the first point of the final set tie-break, Fritz succeeded 4-6 6-3 7-6(3).
Zverev had no reason to be embarrassed about losing to a first-rate Fritz, but nonetheless the German should have been dismayed by those crucial double faults. He said afterwards that he felt he was the clear tournament favorite after Tsitsipas had lost earlier that day, but why didn’t he play with more conviction when it counted against Fritz? Was Zverev getting ahead of himself by thinking about winning the tournament when he was still trying to succeed in his quarterfinal? I have a feeling that was the case. He is too seasoned a campaigner to allow that to happen at this stage of his career. I thought Zverev was more professional than that.
Undoubtedly the unexpected setbacks suffered by Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev opened a window for Norrie to see his way through to a career defining triumph, but that takes nothing away from his success. Cam Norrie is now at No.10 in the Race to Turin for the ATP Finals, and Rafael Nadal is out for the year. So the British lefty could well qualify for that élite season ending event which is reserved for only the top eight players in the world. After his uplifting victory at Indian Wells, only a fool would doubt that Norrie will very likely be in the field at Turin, which is no mean feat.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
Indian Wells Daily Preview: 2019 Finalists Andreescu and Kerber Face Stiff Competition
Monday hosts some stellar third round matchups in both the men’s and women’s singles draws. 10 of the days’ 16 singles matches feature seeded players colliding. They include 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, three-time Major champ Angelique Kerber, and newly-crowned US Open champ Daniil Medvedev.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Monday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.
Angelique Kerber (10) vs. Daria Kasatkina (20) – 11:00am on Stadium 2
It’s the 2018 runner-up against the 2019 runner-up. Both players submitted subpar results thereafter, but have bounced back strongly in 2021. Kasatkina started the year ranked outside the top 70, yet is now inside the top 30 after racking up 36 wins and reaching four finals. Kerber rediscovered her mojo on the grass. Since her title run in Bad Homburg, she’s 18-4. These two players have split eight previous encounters, though Kasatkina leads 4-2 on hard courts. Most recently they met two years ago in Tororto, where Daria prevailed 6-4 in the third. Their clash of styles on these slow courts should provide some dynamic, compelling rallies. But based on Kerber’s current level of confidence, I give her the slight edge.
Bianca Andreescu (16) vs. Anett Kontaveit (18) – Second on Stadium 2
Andreescu may be the defending champion and higher seed, but as of late, Kontaveit has been the better player. She recently hired Dmitry Tursunov as her coach, and she’s been on fire. Since late-August, Anett is 14-1, with two titles. By contrast, Andreescu is only 6-8 since Roland Garros, with the US Open the only event where she has won back-to-back matches. However, Kontaveit did withdraw from a WTA event in Chicago two weeks ago with a thigh injury, so she’s not been 100% after playing so much tennis in such a short span. Bianca rarely goes down without a dogged fight, especially at big events on hard courts, but she may be the underdog on this day. And she’s never beaten Kontaveit, who is 2-0 against Andreescu, including a straight-set victory earlier this year on the grass of Eastbourne.
Other Notable Matches on Monday:
Diego Schwartzman (11) vs. Dan Evans (18) – Schwartzman saved match points on Saturday against American Maxime Cressy, while Evans survived a grueling three-setter against Kei Nishikori. Two months ago in Cincinnati, Diego defeated Dan in three.
Casper Ruud (8) vs. Lloyd Harris (26) – Ruud leads the ATP with five titles this season, winning his first hard court event just eight days ago in San Diego by defeating three top 30 players. Harris is on the verge of breaking into the top 30 himself, coming off his Major quarterfinal debut in New York.
Reilly Opelka (16) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (23) – This summer in Canada, Opelka took out Dimitrov in straight sets, though these slower courts will mitigate some of his Servebot prowess.
Su-Wei Hsieh and Elise Mertens (2) vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek – These teams played what was perhaps the most exciting doubles match of the year at Roland Garros, when Mattek-Sands and Swiatek saved seven match points to eventually prevail after three hours and 11 minutes.
Ons Jabeur (12) vs. Danielle Collins (22) – These are two of the WTA’s strongest performers in recent months. Last October at the French Open, Collins upset Jabeur 6-4 in the third.
Denis Shapovalov (9) vs. Aslan Karatsev (19) – Since advancing to his first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, Shapovalov is a meek 4-6. Karatsev achieved the same feat back in February, but is now 8-11 since mid-May.
Coco Gauff (15) vs. Paula Badosa (21) – This could be one of the best matches of the day, between two of the WTA’s fastest-rising performers. Gauff is just a few wins away from putting herself into qualifying position for the WTA Finals.
Hubert Hurkacz (8) vs. Frances Tiafoe – Tiafoe leads their head-to-head 2-1, though Hurkacz claimed their latest clash, two years ago in Winston-Salem.
Roberto Bautista Agut (15) vs. Cameron Norrie (21) – Norrie has accumulated 42 wins on the year, reaching five finals. Bautista Agut has underperformed this season, and hasn’t achieved a final since March.
Daniil Medvedev (1) vs. Filip Krajinovic (27) – Medvedev is looking for his 50th win of 2021, while Krajinovic arrived at Indian Wells with a record of 17-17. However, he did defeat Daniil at the last staging of this event two years ago.
Barbora Krejcikova (3) vs. Amanda Anisimova – Krejcikova is one of many players who have shared how exhausted they’ve felt after such a busy season, though it’s been an incredibly successful one for her. Anisimova dropped only seven games in four sets played last week.
Monday’s full Order of Play is here.
Medvedev is the winningest on hardcourts, but it’s not enough to become the world N.1
At least as long as Novak Djokovic is around: an analysis of Daniil Medvedev’s numbers from 2019 Wimbledon to the 2021 US Open. He surely wins a lot, but relies too much on the hard courts.
92 – the number of the matches won on hardcourts (outdoors or indoors) by Daniil Medvedev since the end of Wimbledon 2019.
Right after the Championships played two years ago, the 25-year-old Russian was not yet at the level of the best players, but he certainly wasn’t an also-ran either. He had in fact already reached the threshold of the Top 10, a ranking he attained thanks to his wins in four ATP tournaments: during 2018, in what was for him the first season ended in the Top 50, he won the ATP 250 in Sydney and Winston Salem and Tokyo’s ATP 500, to which he added Sofia’s ATP 250 in February 2019.
He had already shown he deserved a top-ten ranking in the previous months, thanks to four wins over foes who belonged to the world’s élite (the most prestigious win he had was on Djokovic in Monte Carlo 2019, the tournament in which he recorded his only semifinal appearance in a Masters 1000 event played on clay).
In August 2019, in the first tournament played with a top 10 ranking in Washington, the turning point of his career arrived: Daniil reached the final, losing against Kyrgios, but from the tournament played in the capital of the United States, he started an impressive streak of 25 wins (eight of which against Top 10-ranked players) in the following 27 matches.
These victories allowed the Russian to claim two Masters 1000 titles (Cincinnati and Shanghai) and an ATP 250 (St. Petersburg), as well as to reach two very important finals at the Masters 1000 in Montreal and at the US Open. Thanks to these results, the Russian pocketed a total check of $5,123,640 in prize money alone in a few weeks, and a booty of 4,050 points that allowed him to climb to the fourth place in the rankings back in September 2019. A sudden rise was followed by an inevitable period of adjustment. Daniil closed 2019 with four consecutive defeats between the debut in Bercy’s Masters 1000 and the three round robin matches of the ATP Finals, and even 2020 – at least until the end of October – was made mostly of shadows: his record before playing in Bercy was a subpar 18-10. When his decline seemed unstoppable, Medvedev rose again during the season finale: from the first round of the last Masters 1000 of the ATP calendar, the Muscovite began a 20-match win streak (12 of which against Top 10 competition) that earned him the Parisian tournament, the ATP Finals, the ATP Cup, and a run to the Australian Open final, when he was brutally halted by Djokovic.
His growth has never stopped since. In February 2021, he won his eleventh ATP tournament in Marseille and the following Monday he earned a great honour, becoming the first tennis player other than the Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) to rise to second place in the ranking since Hewitt, who 794 weeks earlier – it was July 18, 2005 – found himself ranked world N.2 for the last time. The Muscovite did not impress in Miami but at Roland Garros – after having lost his debut match in six of the previous seven tournaments played on clay – he surprised everyone by reaching the quarterfinals. Medvedev continued his season by avenging his debut on grass – a bad defeat against Struff in Halle – with the Mallorca title (his first ATP title on this surface) and for the first time reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, where he lost in five sets against Hurkacz.
In the summer played on outdoor hardcourt, he disappointed at the Tokyo Olympics (where he was defeated by Carreno Busta in the quarterfinals) and in Cincinnati (in Ohio he was stopped in the semis by Rublev, who won over him for the first time after five defeats in as many previous matches against Daniil), but in between he won the fourth Masters 1000 of his career in Toronto. His first Grand Slam title, the US Open, came in the tournament where he’d lost a five-set final to Nadal in 2019. Medvedev won with a clear display of superiority over his colleagues: in the seven matches that led him to triumph, the only one to take away a set from him was qualifier Botic Van De Zandschulp in the quarterfinals. The other six opponents, including a Serbian named Djokovic, never managed to snatch even five games per set from him.
With the victory of the last Grand Slam of the year, Medvedev consolidated his second place in the ranking with a current tally of 10,780 points, “just” 1,353 less than Djokovic and 2,430 more than Tsitsipas. Unfortunately for him, the race for the number 1 in the world, however, appears to be rather difficult, more than what his current ranking implies.
Up to the next Australian Open, the Russian defends 5,585 points (52% of his total share of points) and it is therefore very difficult for him to claim the number one ranking in the next six months: Djokovic, in addition to the advantage he currently holds, has a smaller amount to be wary of in the same period, an amount of 4,835.
In order to close the gap, Medvedev must above all improve his performance when he is not playing on hardcourts: in the last 26 months, as you can read from the table that compares his performance with that of his main antagonists, he has won more matches than everybody else on hardcourts, and by a large margin. In total, he has won 21 more matches than Djokovic and put on the bulletin board a greater number of tournaments, as many as 9, including the US Open, the ATP Finals and four Masters 1000 titles. His own win percentage on hardcourts starting from July 2019 to today is lower (by 3 percentage points) only than that of the Serbian champion alone, and similar to that of Nadal – the latter has however played about half of the Russian’s matches. Medvedev’s ranking is all based on tournaments that are played on the hard courts: between outdoors and indoors hardcourt events, Medvedev has collected 88% of his current points, a big disproportion looking at the other players (from our summary diagram it is shown how, among those players, only Zverev has collected a higher percentage than 60% of his points on the same surface).
In the last two years, the current number 2 in the world has played only when forced to do so: just eight events, from which he collected a title (Mallorca, where he faced only two Top 50 players, Carreno and Ruud, both tennis players with very little expectations on grass) and won only twelve matches. If it seems more than likely that over the next few years Medvedev will be one of the big favorites in the tournaments that will be played on hard, the numbers confirm the impression that only by improving the results on other turfs the Russian could aspire to do the last and most difficult step he is missing: becoming the best player in the world.
Article by Ferruccio Roberti; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa
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