By Giri Nathan
What is the magic behind great sports rivalries? Do they stem from mutual respect, technical brilliance, and a constant desire to improve? Let me double-check. Oh, that’s right, they stem from telling your opponent, “Man, you better shut your fuck up,” one hot day in Miami. If you have not already acquainted yourself with the iconic 2018 flare-up between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev, you’re missing out on key lore for the present generation of ATP stars. You are also missing out on some peak stream-of-consciousness Meddy: “You go emergency toilet for five minutes during and then you hit let and don’t say sorry, you think you’re a good kid?” Some phrases just stick. In sufficiently meme-poisoned online circles, one of these men might forever be the “bullshit Russian,” and the other “a small kid who doesn’t know how to fight,” no matter how many titles they plunk on their shelves. In truth, it seems like the animosity between them has since subsided, but it’s always fun to remember it, and just as fun to watch their actual tennis, especially this week at the ATP Finals in Turin.
Back when this beef began, they had yet to unfurl their full personalities or skill sets, but they’ve since emerged as very different people and players, whose only commonality is the tall-man big serve. Medvedev is the largest-ever counterpuncher the men’s game has seen, a scrambling tangle of limbs that wins via attrition. Tsitsipas surges forward with a conventionally athletic, all-court style, relying on his heavy forehand. One has a sneaky, fanged sense of humor; the other is a pseudo-philosophical himbo. Medvedev owned the matchup at first, winning five in a row across a range of surfaces, until Tsitsipas finally struck back in 2019, en route to the ATP Finals title. With that, the rivalry began to even out. Earlier this year, Meddy beat him at the Australian Open semi, after complaining that Stef’s dad was coaching him from the box, which launched a memorable umpire sting operation. Tsitsipas avenged that loss in Cincinnati. The overall head-to-head heading into this week was 7–3 in Medvedev’s favor. They might have met more often if Medvedev could be bothered to go deep on clay, where Tsitsipas flourishes—but that dirt is for dogs, after all.
Both players might be slightly disappointed by this season. On paper that sounds odd—Tsitsipas has the most tour victories of any player in 2022, and Medvedev had his first stint as world No. 1—but the expectations are rightfully Slam-high for these two. Medvedev was hamstrung by injuries and banned from Wimbledon. Tsitsipas’ highlight was a title defense at Monte Carlo, but he failed to make the second week at three majors, tailspinning first-round at the US Open. An ATP Finals triumph is always a fine sweetener at the end of a bitter season, though. They met on Wednesday at the group stage and produced the best match of their rivalry, as both players took well to these speedy indoor courts. Tsitsipas in particular thrived in serve-and-volley and nailed the timing on his sometimes rickety one-handed backhand. He had three match points in their epic second-set tiebreak. Medvedev erased the last one, won an outrageous 27-shot rally, and then claimed the set. He seemed to have bent the match in his favor and had the chance to serve out the match in the third. But then he turned to vapor, and Tsitsipas flew through the deciding breaker, earning a slot in the semifinals. His 6–3, 6–7(11), 7–6(1) victory may well shift the psychological balance of this feud. It appears that the small kid learned how to fight.
Above: Stef. Meddy. (Getty)