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Men's Australian Open Final Preview: Daniil Medvedev vs. Rafael Nadal
For once, a member of the Big Three won’t be the favorite in a major final against a player who isn’t a member of the Big Three.
Published Jan 29, 2022
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The contrasts are stark and should be fascinating. 35 vs. 25. Big Three vs. Next Gen. Spaniard vs. Russian. Lefty vs. righty. Heavy topspin vs. tricky flat ground strokes. Clay-courter vs. hard-courter. Earnest vs. sardonic. 21 vs. back to back.
We know all about the rivalry between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and we’ve gotten to know about Djokovic vs. Medvedev over the last few years. But Nadal vs. Medvedev feels like two different tennis universes colliding.
This final will also offer a watershed moment for the ATP: For once, a member of the Big Three won’t be the favorite in a Grand Slam final against a player who isn’t a member of the Big Three. Nadal doesn’t come in as a full-fledged underdog, exactly; he has 19 more major titles than his opponent, after all. But the consensus seems to be that Medvedev, the guy with one Slam win to his name, has the edge.
The Russian has earned that elevation in stature. He has beaten Djokovic in a major final. He’s ranked three spots ahead of Rafa at No. 2, and no one will be surprised if he finishes 2022 at No. 1. Most important, hard courts are far and away his favorite surface, which isn’t true for Nadal. While Rafa leads their head to head 3-1, three of those matches have been close, and Medvedev won their most recent meeting.
As for how they match up, Medvedev will present tactical challenges for Nadal. In his last round, against Matteo Berrettini, Rafa was able to pound the Italian’s backhand relentlessly; but Medvedev’s backhand is his more consistent, and in some ways, stronger ground stroke. Nadal also, for once, won’t clearly be the steadiest baseliner on the court. Medvedev is just as consistent, covers just as much ground on defense, and can afford to play just as far back as Rafa.
The serve, naturally, will be a big factor. Medvedev always seems to have an unreturnable up his sleeve when he needs it; that’s how he avoided defeat to Felix Auger Aliassime two rounds ago. Nadal typically serves better, and uses his serve more effectively, in Australia. He’ll need his serve-plus-one (the serve and the next shot) to be razor sharp.
A few variables:
- In last year’s Aussie Open final, Djokovic surprised Medvedev by playing a less-aggressive brand of tennis than the Russian was expecting. Can Rafa find a tactical way to throw Medvedev’s game off?
- If Nadal gets a lead, will the thought of winning No. 21, and finally winning No. 2 in Australia, make him tight? He lost from two sets up against Tsitsipas here last year, and nearly did the same against both Denis Shapovalov here this week, and against Medvedev in the Open final in 2019.
- Will Medvedev keep his cool if he faces any adversity? If not, it could cost him, and he knows it.
“I was definitely out of my mind,” he said after ranting his way through his semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas. “That’s actually why I’m really happy to win, because many matches like this I would go on just to, you know, to do mistakes, because you lose your concentration a lot.”
Medvedev says he has learned how to play major finals. The key, he says, is to play “better than 100 percent” to win. He may need to go beyond his best to deny Rafa the men’s Slam record. But Medvedev has shown he can be that good.