During most of my life, I found tennis to be both easy and difficult to watch. It’s easy because it’s a beautiful sport to watch. The ballet-like movements of the players and the rhythmic sounds when the ball hits the racket and then the court can put you in a beautiful zen state. It’s also easy for everyone to see how Serena sweeps people off the court, how Federer seemingly stops the ball mid-air while contemplating his next move, or how Nadal confuses his opponents with shots from spots that shouldn’t be reachable by anyone. It’s all accessible. Did the Bucks want Doc Rivers as their head coach all this time? But on a deeper level, it’s difficult to watch the game. For most people, and for me as someone who closely follows the four majors but only casually engages at other times, it can seem like two people hitting a ball back and forth until someone wins. Sometimes that’s the case, but obviously there’s much more going on (although there are enough games from Novak Djokovic to knock a ball into someone else long enough for the other to melt).
Daniil Medvedev is the player you must listen to, not play, on the men’s tour, a delight for connoisseurs. If you’ve paid even the slightest attention to tennis in recent years, you’ve heard commentators rave about how he can pretty much do anything and everything during a game. He mixes and matches styles, tactics, and positions, and sometimes it feels like he’s doing it just to entertain himself. With his thinning hairline quickly getting tousled as he gets lost in his work, he seems like the Dr. Weird of tennis. Yet he can often seem like a guy who stands as far back as possible, waits for errors from the other side, and can hit pretty hard with his serve. The nuances can be hard to decipher.
Tuesday evening, in his Australian Open quarterfinal against Hubert Hurkacz, I was eager to see if I could dive beyond the surface. And since Hurkacz is another player known for thinking through points and games rather than dictate Dummy Warrior style and bully his way through opponents, I thought there would be plenty of opportunity to do so. I didn’t have to wait long. The first thing most people might know about Medvedev is that he usually prefers to return serve from somewhere outside the parking lot. At the Australian Open, linespeople were abolished, perhaps to prevent Medvedev from stomping on their feet while the ball was served to him. This made it nearly impossible to beat Medvedev while trying to exploit him with serves and volleys, because he doesn’t do it well.
Bearing the shocked looks Hurkacz gave his team after being broke, standing at the baseline during Hurkacz’s first serve in the very first game of the match was likely the last thing anyone expected. It seemed more likely that Medvedev would show up in a bear suit than it is for Hurkacz to cut first serves. Yet this approach worked, giving Medvedev the break. From then on, Medvedev insisted on hitting everything with Hurkacz’s backhand, even though the scouting report on Hurkacz indicates that it’s his forehand that can falter. Hurkacz had to make 104 backhand shots in the first set, unlike 80 forehand errors, leading to 10 unforced errors on this wing, compared to Medvedev’s two. Medvedev’s playful approach helped him take the tiebreak in the first set, as he either waited for Hurkacz to fend off a backhand or ran around it, opening up the court to hit with his forehand, like in the videos.
This is still Medvedev, and even if he saw the attack on Hurkacz’s backhand as the way forward, he wouldn’t stick to it because there’s always something new for him to try. He still returned serve from way farther back than before, but turned around to track Hurkacz’s forehand (he hit 10 more forehands than backhands in the set). It didn’t work, and Hurkacz was much cleaner on that side, winning the set 6-2 against a pretty lackluster Medvedev. Back to Hurkacz’s backhand in the third set, and while Hurkacz wasn’t as stubborn as in the first, Medvedev still managed to take the set 6-3, as he fended off enough points with Hurkacz’s second serve, while enjoying Hurkacz’s mistakes. Yet, to see Medvedev’s mind turn neon, you have to wait until his legs get glassy. Medvedev hoped to win the fourth set as well, until he visibly got tired and Hurkacz didn’t miss. After trailing 2-4, Hurkacz took five of the next six games, served seven aces, and found his groove on the second serve, winning six of the nine crucial points.
Medvedev isn’t the only player to employ such tactics, in fact he may enjoy them more than most. In the fifth set, a visibly gassed Medvedev again retired to the shadows to return serve, about 15 feet behind the baseline. And he chose when to actually take a break very carefully, being on fumes and all. He didn’t hit any corners, didn’t make big plays, and any game that started at 15-0 or 30-15 was wiped out. Essentially everything was geared towards holding his first serve and waiting for a misstep. It came in the seventh game, as Medvedev forced two backhand errors from Hurkacz, breaking him.
This happened with another feat of Medvedev’s brainpower as he mainly did so at the net, which he notoriously dislikes. But he came forward and hit two volleys to prevent his opponent’s misfire. This set the stage for the final game, as Medvedev finished the match with two serves and volleys in the last game, the only two times he attempted to do so during the game, or maybe he did. He then ended the match, why wouldn’t he?
It’s easy to see why fans might find Medvedev boring. The points are usually long, he doesn’t deliver as many heroic shots during a match as others, the tricks are subtle and you have to look hard for them. This also doesn’t include the variations of slices and spins he will implement during a game to reach his objectives. But if you’re willing to line up, ride along, and look closely, you’ll see much more bubbling beneath the surface than you thought. Follow me on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social.