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The Octopus in the Catbird Seat

By Giri Nathan

Sometimes your match gets rained out. Sometimes you pull a hamstring. Sometimes the best player ever gets deported from the country right before the Australian Open. Every competitive athlete knows their fate is linked to these cosmic dice rolls. For the remainder of the men’s draw, Novak Djokovic’s departure on a Sunday-night flight to Dubai was a boon to their own tennis fortunes. Salvatore Caruso, who filled Djokovic’s vacant slot in the draw, accurately joked that he was now the “most famous lucky loser in the world,” and collected a six-figure check after his first-round loss.

The quarter formerly belonging to Djokovic has opened up majestically for Gael Monfils, who is playing some of his most focused tennis in recent memory, and for Matteo Berrettini, who survived a Carlos Alcaraz five-setter. And depending on how far ahead he’s willing to look, the absence of the defending champ is also pretty spectacular news for the next-highest seed at this Open, and last year’s runner-up, Daniil Medvedev.

If we safely assume that injuries, time, and continued vaccine mandates have closed out the era of the Big Three, no other player is better poised to take advantage than the Octopus. Every aspect of the Russian’s tactically complete and visually tentacular game is humming right now. Having picked up his first major trophy at last year’s US Open, Medvedev looks like the hard-court player of the present and future. Since the start of 2021, he’s gone 55–9 on the surface; both my eyeballs and Tennis Abstract’s surface-specific Elo rankings have him on top, too. I don’t know why it took so long for some ambitious experimenter to fuse a servebot to a returnbot—aside from the glaring limits of physics and human anatomy—but every time he rains down 130-mph serves and effortlessly retrieves the opponent’s own 130-mph serves, it’s hard to see how anyone else can have a chance.

Surely that was the experience of his second-round opponent, Nick Kyrgios, who delivered an optimal performance on Thursday, within the confines of his intentionally suboptimal approach to conditioning and training. Though Nick’s days of automatically qualifying for majors may be numbered—he’s ranked No. 115 and trending down—as long as he’s in the draw, he’s an early-round headache for any big name unfortunate enough to cross his path. 

The Australian played steady in the first two sets, then broke serve spectacularly in the third set to scrape away a set, but Medvedev was preposterously good on both sides of the ball. During the match, Kyrgios said, “I can’t serve any bigger,” and mimed Medvedev’s floppy return technique. After the match, he was asked what he’d have for dinner and said, “I don’t know, man… Fuckin’ Daniil’s serve, straight down my throat.” The Russian had fed him 31 aces.

Medvedev stoically played through the usual Kyrgios antics—mixing in the occasional underarm serves, sparring with the umpire to fire himself up, stealing towels from the opponent’s bench—but he seemed genuinely flustered by the antics of the Australian crowd. More specifically, he was mad about one sound they made throughout the match: “Siu!” It’s a soccer chant linked to Cristiano Ronaldo. Why it’s so prevalent at this year’s Open remains a mystery to me; what I’ve been able to discover thus far in my extensive research is that it’s really dumb and annoying. 

On court after his win, Medvedev sparred with the crowd, chastising them for Siu-ing between his first and second serves, especially on break points. He later wrote “Siuuuu!!” on the camera, and said that fans responsible for the chant “probably have a low IQ.” Low-IQ fans may well be Medevedev’s toughest test until week 2. Next up for Medvedev is  Botic Van De Zandschulp, the fabulously mild-mannered Dutchman who broke into the quarterfinals of the 2021 US Open as a qualifier. And waiting in the fourth round is either Australian wild card Christoper O’Connell or American serve-and-volleyer Maxime Cressy, ranked No. 175 and No. 70, respectively. Things get a little spicier after that, but no one outside an elite handful has caused Medvedev much woe on hard courts in recent memory. As unnatural as it feels to make such a proclamation about a player not named Novak or Rafael, this feels like Daniil’s major title to lose.

Above: Daniil Medvedev gives a salty interview after is second round defeat of Nick Kyrgios. (Getty) 

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