London Battle Between Two Titans Goes to Medvedev

WASHINGTON/LONDON, November 18, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

With a Nitto ATP Finals semifinal berth on the line, World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic came into his Wednesday evening skirmish against World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev owning a 4-2 head-to-head advantage. There is mutual admiration between the two titans.

The last time they met, in the semifinals of the ATP Cup last January, Djokovic won. Both of Medvedev’s wins over the World No. 1 came last year in Monte Carlo and Cincinnati.

While Djokovic improved to 12-1 in opening round robin matches on Monday when he defeated Diego Schwartzman, his 6-6 record in second matches was a head scratcher. The 33-year-old Serbian was trying to reach the semifinals for the ninth time in 13 Nitto ATP Finals appearances and start 2-0 for the seventh time. He knew that a straight-set win over Medvedev, coming after Alexander Zverev eliminated Diego Schwartzman earlier in the day, would lift him into Saturday’s semifinals.

It didn’t happen. Instead, Djokovic got crushed by Medvedev in a sterling performance, 6-3, 6-3, that lasted just 81 minutes.

What transpired Wednesday evening was characterized by long rallies, and great defense and range by Medvedev – and when the 24-year old Russian broke to go ahead 4-3 in the opening set, he and Djokovic played through a 16-point, 11-minute and 22-second seventh game. The final point alone lasted 21 shots. It was a portends of good things to come for Medvedev.

Medvedev went on to win the first set 6-3 thanks to Djokovic’s fourth double fault. In the opening stanza, Medvedev’s steadiness contributed to 10 winners and just six unforced errors. Djokovic’s numbers were unimpressive: 11 winners and 16 unforced errors. Medvedev’s defense was better than Djokovic’s offense.

Medvedev opened the second set with a flash, hitting his fifth ace to hold, then he immediately broke Djokovic to go ahead 2-0 as the match neared the hour mark. Then, his seventh ace erased a break point as he held to increase his lead to 3-0. Medvedev had won seven consecutive games against Djokovic. A game later, Medvedev held for a commanding 4-1 advantage. Soon, it was 5-2 as Medvedev held at love with his ninth ace. Finally, serving for the match at 5-3, Medvedev’s 10th ace put him ahead for good,  and on match point at 40-15 he hit a forehand winner to finish a simple but effective three-shot rally.

Last year, Medvedev went 0-3 in his tournament debut before he earned his first win on Monday against Zverev. He built upon his performance and showed remarkable skill and confidence against Djokovic. Medvedev finished with 10 aces, won 79 percent (30 of 38) of his first-serve points, saved the only break point he faced and broke Djokovic three times. He outpointed the Serbian 70-54.

“I like to play against Novak,” said Medvedev, 24, the No. 4 seed in London. “We have tough matches, you know. … I think in these conditions we have here, we can have a lot of long rallies. We are both going to run well.”

In their only other indoor meeting, in a 2017 Davis Cup tie in Nis, Serbia, the then-ranked No. 63 Medvedev stunned Djokovic. Medvedev has come a long way since then.

After the 33-year-old Djokovic beat Medvedev 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in the ATP Cup semifinals, he said of the Russian: “He showed why he’s one of the best players in the world, why he’s Top 5. This kind of consistency and this kind of solid game from back of the court, big serves got him to where he is. He deserves to be there.”

Wednesday evening’s victory lifted Medvedev into Saturday’s semifinals and left Djokovic needing to beat Zverev on Friday to join him in the last four. Medvedev is the first Russian to reach the Nitto ATP Finals semifinals since Nikolay Davydenko won the 2009 title and the fourth Russian semifinalist overall.

During his post-match TV interview, Medvedev, who has now won three of his last four against Djokovic, said, “I like to play Novak because he is one of the greatest champions in the history of our sport. When I was eight years old, I was already watching him on TV winning Grand Slams. He was still young. It is always a dream come true to play against him.

“Of course, [I am] really happy to beat him. I was serving good and playing safe enough in the most important moments. That is why I got the win.”

Zverev gets first win, remains in the chase

Both No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev, making his fourth straight Nitto ATP Finals appearance, and No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman, making his first, approached their Wednesday afternoon match trying to rebound from their respective opening round robin losses. They came in having split their previous four matches. Both of the German’s wins have been indoors, the most recent in the Cologne 2 final on October 25.

Zverev, the 2019 champion, came in with a 7-6 career record at The O2, while Schwartzman, who lost in the quarterfinal round at the Rolex Paris Masters, was trying to avoid his first three-match losing streak of the season. Arriving in London, Schwartzman had won 15 of 20 matches since a first-round loss at the US Open.

As it happened, Zverev emerged with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory in two hours and 11 minutes. It wasn’t always pretty, but he made the most of his opportunities, overcoming 38 unforced errors by hitting 30 winners, including 10 aces. Zverev saved six of the nine break points he faced. Schwartzman hit 21 winners and made 26 unforced errors.

“Diego is a very difficult player,” said Zverev during an on-court TV interview after his win. “He deserves to be here. … There are no easy matches, but I am happy to get the win. I am happy to give myself a chance to go to the semifinals and I am excited for Friday.”

Zverev won the 40-minute opening set after coming back from a break down. He held from 15-40 in the last game and won four of the last five games of the set. Then, after Schwartzman rallied to take the second set, Zverev went back to work. He gained his fourth break of Schwartzman to go ahead 3-2 after finishing a 14-shot rally with a backhand volley winner from behind the service line.

Then, Zverev consolidated the break for a 4-2 lead and began mounting pressure on Schwartzman as the match reached the two-hour mark. However, Schwartzman wasn’t ready to concede. He rallied from 15-40 with a big hold of his serve, winning the seventh game with a nifty forehand passing shot that zoomed by a surprised Zverev.

Later, Zverev moved to within a game of victory when he served his 10th ace of the match to hold for 5-3. Then, he earned a match point with an overhead smash that capped a 20-shot skirmish. On the next point, Schwartzman netted a return and with it, his chances of a victory and remaining alive for advancement disappeared. Instead, Zverev will face Novak Djokovic on Friday, needing a win to move into the last four.

“Friday is going to be the most difficult match you can have here against Novak,” Zverev said. “We played twice here already, so I am looking forward to it.”

Rublev: ‘Season was amazing for me’

Despite losing his first two group play matches, which knocked him from qualifying for the semifinals, No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev talked about what he can learn from his 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (6) loss to No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas on Tuesday evening, in which he squandered a match point opportunity.

“I am grateful for this season. I cannot complain,” said Rublev, who began the year ranked No. 23 and reached the Top 10 after winning three straight ATP 500 series this fall. “I won so many tournaments that I never won before. This year, I won more tournaments than in [the rest of] my career. I won more matches than [any other year] in my career. I am the one who cannot complain. I can only be grateful for this season. I became Top 10 for the first time, so this season was amazing for me.”

Granollers/Zeballos move closer to semifinals

No. 4 seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos from Argentina upset No. 1 seeds Mate Pavic of Croatia and Bruno Soares from Brazil 7-6 (4), 6-7 (4), 10-8, in a matchup of previously unbeaten teams. The victory improved the season win-loss record for Granollers and Zeballos to 24-6. The Spaniard/Argentine pair have beaten Pavic and Soares two out of the three times they’ve met this year. Previously, Pavic and Soares prevailed at the US Open and Granollers and Zeballos in Rome.

Neither team was broken during their two hour and three-minute match and Granollers and Zeballos saved four deciding points. There were only four points separating the two teams as Pavic and Soares outpointed Granollers and Zeballos, 86-82.

“They saved two match points [in the match tiebreak] with amazing points, but we were playing really good and we had match point on serve,” Granollers said. “We had to focus on that point. Horacio served a wide serve and Bruno missed the return. … The match was really close and we are very happy.”

Added Zeballos: “Marcel is very positive. He is always trying to go forward, nothing thinking about the past, and that is really important. … I think that is one of the best things we are doing this week.”

• Later, No. 7 seeds Jurgen Melzer of Austria and Edouard Roger-Vasselin from France saved five match points and beat No. 6 seeds John Peers of Australia and Michael Venus from New Zealand, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 12-10. With the victory, it meant that three teams are still in contention for two semifinal berths in Group Bob Bryan.

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Looking ahead to Thursday

Group London 2020 completes its round-robin singles play beginning in the afternoon with No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem (2-0) facing No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev (0-2). Thiem has already advanced to Saturday’s semifinal round while Rublev has been eliminated. Then, in the evening, No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal (1-1) takes on No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas (1-1) with a berth in the semifinals riding on the outcome.

In doubles, Group Mike Bryan doubles features No. 5 seeds Wesley Koolhof and Nikola Mektic (2-0), who have earned advancement into the semifinals, against No. 8 seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo (0-2) in the afternoon. Then, No. 2 seeds Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury (1-1) face No. 3 seeds Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies (1-1) with the winner moving on to the semifinals.