By Giri Nathan
Daniil Medvedev getting the No. 2 seed at the clay major is its own punchline. In the seedings, the tall Russian who despises clay is flanked on either side by arguably the second- and unarguably the first-best male player ever to touch clay, in Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. So why is Meddy seeded No. 2? The French Federation doesn’t give weight to surface-specific results, like Wimbledon does for grass, so the seeds at Roland-Garros faithfully reproduce the overall tour rankings. This is sound enough—Medvedev’s hard-court genius absolutely earned that No. 2 slot in the world, which he is the first person not named Roger, Rafa, Novak, or Andy Murray to occupy since 2005-—but it is also really funny. Heading into this tournament, No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev had almost as many tour-level victories on clay (11) as No. 3 seed Rafa Nadal had French Open titles (13). He had never won a match at the French Open, either: fourth-set retirement in 2017, a straight-set loss in 2018, a five-set defeat in 2019, and, even after his surge to the apex of the tour, a first-round loss to Marton Fucsovics in 2020. These courts in Paris have not been kind to him.
What doesn’t he like about them? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you. Meddy’s dysfunctional relationship with clay has been one of the most entertaining story lines of this season, a reliable font of instant-classic quotes. “Honestly, there’s nothing I like on clay,” he said ahead of the Monte Carlo Masters, from which he withdrew after a positive COVID-19 test. “There’s always bad bounces, you’re dirty after playing. I really don’t enjoy playing on clay.” That’s pretty good, but can you get more specific, Daniil? In Madrid, after playing (and losing) his first set of the season on clay, he banged his racquet on the court and wailed, “I don’t want to play here on this surface.” The umpire asked him not to damage the court. “It’s already broken,” Medvedev said. “It’s bad surface. Me, I cannot do damage to bad surface. Bad surface is bad surface.” Here he is making both a metaphysical point about clay—can you really break a pile of broken bricks?—and being monumentally pissy all in one. In Rome, as he lost to Aslan Karatsev, he continued his lament: “It’s the worst surface in the world for me. But if you like to be in the dirt like a dog, I don’t judge.” With the end in sight but too far to bear, he made a final plea to authority, which was in this case supervisor Gerry Armstrong: “Gerry, please default me, it would be better for everybody.” For an explanation heavier on geometry than on despondence, writer Matt Willis has outlined why Medvedev in particular might struggle on clay. At the most general level: Medvedev’s signature flat skidding ball is both less bothersome to opponents after losing speed on contact with the clay, and more difficult to keep in the court when struck from the deep-court positions he is forced into by clay’s high bounces.
But this French Open is not like the others, for Medvedev. It is especially unlike last year’s. These courts are drying out in hot June, unlike last fall’s cold wet slog, and the Wilson balls are more to his liking. After winning his first round against the trickster Alexander Bublik, he had some uncharacteristically sunny words: “As soon as I came here these balls are much lighter, they go faster in the air, so that’s why I can make them also drop faster before the baseline and stuff like this.” “I feel really hopeful,” he said. “You could see it today in the match, I’m feeling that here, at least this year with this weather, with these balls, I can play like on hard courts.” Maybe this was the secret all along: The way to win on clay is to wait until it resembles a surface you actually like and respect. In the second round, Medvedev took down another able clay-courter in Tommy Paul. In the third round, he dispatched the big-bombing Reilly Opelka, who’s in the middle of his own unexpected clay renaissance. Look at him now: At time of writing, Medvedev now has more career clay wins (14) than Rafa has trophies here (13). That’s progress!
Above: Awkward. (Getty)