MELBOURNE, Australia — Once again, the last defense against No. 21 will be Daniil Medvedev.
He has quite the temper, as he showed in an extraordinary rant at a chair umpire on Friday, and he has become quite the spoiler with his long, elastic limbs and unconventional, often outside-the-lines approach to constructing points and demolishing opponents’ game plans and dreams.
In last year’s U.S. Open final, the 6-foot-6 Russian stopped Novak Djokovic from completing the Grand Slam, which requires winning all four major tournaments in the same calendar year, and also kept Djokovic from breaking his tie with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for most career major titles.
On Sunday, with the three men who have dominated this era still deadlocked at 20 Grand Slam titles apiece, Medvedev will face Nadal in the Australian Open final.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Medvedev said of tennis’s Big Three — Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. “I’m happy to have the chance to try to stop one more time somebody from making history.”
But Medvedev, 25 and with just one major title to his name, also has the luxury of remaining above the fray.
“I’m just trying to focus on myself, doing my job,” he said. “I know what’s happening. I know what Rafa is going for. I knew what Novak was going for. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I am trying not to listen about this.’ But it’s kind of their thing, not mine.”
Medvedev’s thing has been establishing himself as the sport’s new leading player, at least on the hardcourts that suit his game and comfort zone far better than clay or grass for now.
Nadal got an extended taste of Medvedev’s protean ways and new-age talents in the 2019 U.S. Open final when Medvedev shifted tactics after losing the first two sets. He began attacking the net to break up long rallies and pushed Nadal for nearly five hours before losing in the fifth set.
They have not played each other on an outdoor hardcourt since then, and though both played their semifinal matches indoors under a closed roof in Rod Laver Arena because of rain, the weather is expected to be clear on Sunday when they meet again in Melbourne.
“I am facing my most difficult rival of the whole tournament in the final,” Nadal said.
That might not have been true if Djokovic had been able to play. He has won the Australian Open a men’s record nine times, including the last three, but in one of the most stunning twists in tennis history, he was deported from Australia on the eve of the tournament after his visa was revoked by the federal government and his final appeal was rejected.
Nadal, seeded sixth, was initially in the top-seeded Djokovic’s half of the draw but ended up playing No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini in the semifinals instead. He feasted on Berrettini’s weaker backhand wing and broke the powerful Italian’s serve four times to prevail, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Medvedev also won in four sets, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, though Medvedev’s victory was considerably more tempestuous. After losing his serve in the ninth game of the second set and receiving a code violation for an obscenity that he said was misinterpreted, Medvedev shouted angrily at chair umpire Jaume Campistol for most of the changeover. He suggested that Tsitsipas’s father was illegally coaching his son from the player box.
“Are you stupid? His father can talk every point?” Medvedev said from his chair, screaming “Look at me!” at the Spanish official when Campistol turned his gaze back toward the court to try to defuse the situation.
It was an extraordinary outburst, a flashback to combustible champions of the past like John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. But after behaving boorishly, Medvedev at least sounded sheepish.
“I regret it all the time, because I don’t think it’s nice,” he said of mistreating chair umpires. “I know that every referee is trying to do their best. But, yeah, when you are there, tennis, you know, we don’t fight with the fists, but tennis is a fight. It’s a one on one against another player. So I’m actually really respectful to players who never, almost never, show their emotions because, I mean, it’s tough, it’s tough, because I get, I can get really emotional.”
Medvedev said he could not be certain that Apostolos Tsitsipas was coaching his son. He said all he could hear was his commentary during the match in Greek, which Medvedev does not speak. Part of Medvedev’s frustration with Campistol was that he did not speak Greek either. But tournament officials soon stationed the Greek umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore in a tunnel within earshot of the player box. After Tsitsipas received a warning for coaching early in the fourth set, he did not win another game, and Medvedev accelerated to the finish.
Tsitsipas, whose relationship with Medvedev has long been frosty, smiled when asked about Friday’s outburst.
“It’s for sure funny,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to this stuff. Players like to do this stuff to throw you off mentally. Could be maybe a tactic. It’s all right. He’s not the most mature person anyways.”
Coaching violations are nothing new for Tsitsipas. He already had received two in the tournament, but he insisted that he was not being coached on Friday even if he believed it should be allowed during matches.
“It’s something that he does from nature,” Tsitsipas said. “I’ve talked to him about it. I’ve tried.”
Medvedev has been working on himself after losing his cool so often in his early years. He showed Zen master composure in his second-round defeat of the Australian Nick Kyrgios last week with Kyrgios egging on the crowd, but Friday was a big step back in self-control if not ball control. It has been a rough week for umpire-player relations.
The Canadian Denis Shapovalov went after Carlos Bernardes in the quarterfinals for seeming to show favoritism to Nadal by not penalizing him for delays. Shapovalov, 22, barked “You guys are all corrupt” at Bernardes and later backed away from that statement but still received the biggest fine of the tournament: $8,000 Australian Dollars ($5,600) for unsportsmanlike conduct. Medvedev surely will be fined, as well.
“In the heat of the moment, I just lost it,” he said.
Such misbehavior is a contrast with that of Nadal, who has never broken a racket in anger during his 20-year career. Federer, though generally well-mannered, cannot say the same. But men’s tennis’s younger stars, including Kyrgios, are setting an edgier tone with their comportment and sometimes with each other (see Medvedev and Tsitsipas). The generation gap has not gone unnoticed.
“We know how Rafa’s mentality in life is like,” Medvedev said. “I don’t know if I should call it this way, but he’s like a perfect guy.”
Nadal, who likes to undersell and over-deliver, surely would not describe himself that way, but he is in an upbeat frame of mind after missing most of the second half of the 2021 season with a chronic foot problem and recently recovering from the coronavirus. This is his sixth and most surprising Australian Open final, and he was in tears on court on Friday and said he had discussed retirement with his family last year.
“This is a success that is particularly emotional,” Nadal said. “It means so much to me, perhaps because it’s so unexpected.”
He has won this title just once, beating Federer in 2009 with Federer breaking down in the awards ceremony. Since then, Nadal has experienced plenty of his own heartache here: losing a 2012 final to Djokovic that went 5 hours 53 minutes, leaving both men struggling to stand, and then losing another marathon final to Federer in 2017 despite holding a 3-1 lead in the fifth set.
Now, Nadal has a chance to set himself apart, even as he continues to insist that finishing first in the Grand Slam chase is not his obsession or even his priority.
“Being very honest, for me is much more important to have the chance to play tennis than win the 21, no?” he said.
He has played plenty in Melbourne and now, at age 35, comes what looks like the hardest part: an intergenerational duel with a rival who, like Nadal, returns far behind the baseline and covers court with startling speed but who also can slap winners and aces in flurries with flat power and possesses the long reach to neutralize Nadal’s trademark topspin forehand.
Nadal seems to know what he is up against: “If I’m not able to play at my top level,” he said, “there will be simply no chance.”