Novak Djokovic has long reigned as the king of Melbourne Park but on Sunday he faces a major threat to his throne.
Djokovic, the world No. 1 from Serbia, has won all eight of his previous Australian Open finals – as well as being unbeaten in nine semi-finals – and against the rest of the field, he would be the heavy favourite to win a ninth title in Melbourne.
And yet, the bookmakers see very little between these two.
It’s easy to see why. Medvedev, who is guaranteed to rise to at least a career-high world No. 3 in the ATP rankings on Monday after reaching a second Grand Slam final, is on a 20-match win streak.
Since November he has beaten every member of the top-10, apart from the currently inactive Roger Federer, and has strung together 12-straight top-10 wins. Only six players, including Djokovic, have put together equal or longer streaks.
A 13th on Sunday would see him rise above Rafael Nadal in the rankings and become the first non-‘Big Four’ player to crack the top-2 since July 24, 2005.
Make no mistake, this is a man at the top of his game.
‘Daniil Medvedev is the player to beat,’ Djokovic declared after his semi-final win over Medvedev’s fellow Russian Aslan Karatsev.
‘He’s on a big winning streak. He ended out the season best possible fashion. I mean, winning quite comfortably, actually, against top players, against myself in straight sets in London, and he just has improved a lot. I mean, he has a big serve. For a tall guy, he moves extremely well.
‘Forehand maybe was his weaker shot, but he has improved that, as well. Backhand is as good as it gets. He’s so solid. He doesn’t give you much. But he’s not afraid nowadays to attack and get to the net and take it to his opponents.
‘He’s just so solid. Also, I heard Jim Courier calling him a master chess player because of the way he tactically positions himself on the court, and it’s true. You know, he’s definitely very smart tennis player.’
Medvedev is clearly an intelligent man both on and off the court and one who isn’t afraid of mindgames.
‘He’s never lost in eight times in the final here. It’s him who has all the pressure,’ Medvedev jibed after his straight sets mauling of Stefanos Tsitsipas. ‘Getting to Roger, Rafa, in the Grand Slams. So I just hope I’m going to get out there and show my best tennis. I can beat some big names if I play good.
‘He has, for sure, more experience, but more things to lose than me.’
Medvedev does have experience of his own to draw upon. He was narrowly beaten by Nadal in the 2019 US Open final – a match where he recovered from two sets down to force a dramatic fifth.
Routes to Australian Open semi-finals
R1: 6-3 6-1 6-2 Chardy
R2: 6-3 6-7 7-6 6-3 Tiafoe
R3: 7-6 6-4 3-6 4-6 6-2 Fritz
R4: 7-6 4-6 6-1 6-4 Raonic
QF: 6-7 6-2 6-4 7-6 Zverev
SF: 6-3 6-4 6-2 Karatsev
R1: 6-2 6-2 6-4 Pospisil
R2: 6-2 7-5 6-1 Carballes Baena
R3: 6-3 6-3 4-6 3-6 6-0 Krajinovic
R4: 6-4 6-2 6-3 McDonald
QF: 7-5 6-3 6-2 Rublev
SF: 6-4 6-2 7-5 Tsitsipas
As Djokovic pointed out, however, the breakthrough has yet to come for any of the younger generation against the ‘Big Three’ in Slam finals.
‘Pressure is always there, it’s what we do,’ Djokovic told Eurosport. ‘Everyone talks about the new generation coming and taking over us, but realistically that isn’t happening still.
‘We can talk about it all day but with all my respect to 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 going to make them work their ass off for that.’
Medvedev, as calm and collected as ever, responded to those quotes with a smile: ‘When Novak says he’s not gonna hand anything to somebody, I believe him.’
It’s understandable the Russian is entering this match with no fear. He has become one of the best-two hard-courters on the planet – vying with his final opponent for top spot – and has won three of his last-four meetings with Djokovic.
The lanky Medvedev – who is dubbed an ‘octopus’ in tennis circles – appears to play the game at a different speed. He chases everything down and effortlessly guides it back, with purchase, into more awkward positions for his opponent.
Greek fifth seed Tsitsipas, the latest player to have his brain broken by the rangy Russian, gave a fascinating insight into what it’s like playing him.
‘Let me tell you that he’s a player who has unlocked pretty much everything in the game. It’s like he’s reading the game really well,’ said the 22-year-old.
‘He has this amazing serve which I would describe close to John Isner’s serve. 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.
‘It’s difficult. Obviously it’s not meant to be easy, otherwise, you know, he would be stuck at the futures level and not here. So he makes it very difficult, and I’m sure all the hard work that he has been putting and the hours on the court have benefited a lot.
‘He tricks you. You know, he plays the game really smart. It’s really interesting to see that.’
Not much needs to be said about the Djokovic game – a breathtaking combination of unique flexibility, tactical genius from the back of the court and, more so than ever, a devastatingly accurate serve. He has been the dominant force in tennis for the past decade and at 33 still possesses the hunger to usurp Nadal and Federer on the all-time Grand Slam list.
It’s worth noting that his tournament did appear in major doubt during the third round as he suffered an abdominal injury against Taylor Fritz. While he initially self-diagnosed the problem as a tear, he has been unwilling to elaborate further since.
Judging by his performances it is nothing too serious but if there is a problem of note, a gruelling five-setter with Medvedev is not the ideal cure.
Calling the final is proving a tough task.
Tsitsipas has experience of losing an Australian Open semi-final only to see his opponent thumped by king of Melbourne Djokovic.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised to see Daniil win the tournament,’ he said. ‘But, you know, it’s a strange scenario.
‘I played Rafa here two years ago. I found his performance against me that day phenomenal. I was 100% sure he was gonna win the tournament. And I ended up being wrong.
‘Who knows? I don’t know. Like, Djokovic is playing well too. Look, I’m not a betting website. I don’t know what to say. Might be Medvedev, would be good for him, good for tennis.’
Boris Becker, the six-time Grand Slam champion who had a successful spell as Djokovic’s coach, thinks Djokovic remains the favourite despite facing his ‘most difficult opponent’.
‘If you asked Novak Djokovic who he would have preferred to play Tsitsipas or Medvedev, he would probably have said Tsitsipas,’ Becker told Eurosport.
‘Medvedev plays too unpredictable and also has this fantastic run: winning the 20th match in a row. He’s the player of the moment, but he’s playing the eight-time Australian Open winner in Melbourne, Novak Djokovic.
‘The Australian Open is Novak Djokovic’s favourite tournament. He has won the tournament eight times, that also does something to the opponent. Novak is the favourite for me.
‘But Medvedev is the most difficult opponent he can have in the final. The young Russian can win that, too. How many times has he [Novak Djokovic] done it? Eight times. How many times has he won it? Eight times.
Novak Djokovic vs Daniil Medvedev
Djokovic 4-3 Medvedev
Grand Slam titles won
Djokovic 17-0 Medvedev
Djokovic 81-9 Medvedev
Current ranking (including Aus Open results)
Djokovic 1-3 Medvedev
Ranking with title
Djokovic 1-2 Medvedev
‘Something happens to the player then: he feels special and he has won 17 Grand Slams. But it will be a tough match against Medvedev.’
There are compelling cases for both men. It’s rare for Djokovic to not show up to a big match – in fact, examples are non-existent in Melbourne – but it’s equally hard to see his Russian opponent failing to show up for the occasion.
The only prediction I’m willing to make with confidence is that this will be a thriller between two men at the top of their games. A genuine 50/50.
One impressive streak is bound to come to an end and perhaps Djokovic – the most successful man at this event – will finally be dethroned. But I’m sticking with the Serb.
Prediction: Novak Djokovic to win the Australian Open in 5
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