Nitto ATP Finals 2020

Marvellous Medvedev triumphs over Thiem in London’s finale

Medvedev and Thiem set to lead long-awaited charge of 90s generation into 2021

Daniil Medvedev
Daniil Medvedev (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It has been talked of for years already, the question of when a new generation will break up the 15-year dominance of Roger Federer, now age 39, Rafael Nadal, age 34, and Novak Djokovic, 33.

Federer won the first of his 28 Masters in 2002 and the first of 20 Majors in 2003; Nadal claimed the first of 35 Masters and the first of 20 Majors in 2005; For Djokovic his record in Masters, now up to 36, began in 2007, and his 17 Major tally began the following year.

The three of them top the all-time records in both categories.

As for holding the No1 ranking, only Andy Murray—also 33—has broken the Federer/Djokovic/Nadal stranglehold for a full 16 years. Between them, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal hold the records for most weeks at No1, most weeks in the top two, the top three, the top four, and the top five.

And this week, Nadal set a new record for most consecutive weeks in the top two, passing 800 by Christmas. But…

… maybe there really is a change afoot.

Take that last statistic: Current No3 Dominic Thiem is on the verge of becoming the first player in more than 15 years to enter the top two.

And in September, Thiem became the first player born in the 1990s to win a Major, at the US Open—also making him the first new Major champion in six years. And he had already made three other Major finals.

But perhaps the best indicator of the status and quality of the 27-year-old Austrian was achieved in reaching the last final of the season this week, the last final at the iconic O2 arena. By reaching the final via wins over both Nadal and Djokovic, Thiem became only the second player (after Murray) to tot up at least five wins over Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.

He was, then, increasingly looking like the man to break ‘the old order’, and perhaps the favourite to go one better than his final finish last November.

But in his way stood a younger contender, current No4 Daniil Medvedev, who overtook the absent Federer in the ranks with his pre-London victory at the Paris Masters.

And that was not a bolt from the blue. He announced himself on the tennis stage last year with an astonishing run through summer and autumn, winning two Masters from three straight Masters finals and then coming within touching distance of the US Open title in a five-set thriller against Nadal.

With six top-10 wins in the last month, he then completed that rare achievement, the scalps of Djokovic and Nadal in the same tournament. Now he was aiming to do something even more rare: a sweep of the top three men in a single tournament. If he beat Thiem in the title match, the Russian would become just the third man to do it since 1970.

The eye-catching style of the tall Russian—and his extrovert, emotional personality—had certainly captured the attention of fans and pundits alike: He has a big, fast game, full of attack but also backed up by defensive speed, and all managed by one of the smartest brains on a tennis court.

So eye-catching, in fact, that many had already talked of Medvedev as a future Major champion and No1, but for now, he had to prove his worth against the pretender to the throne, Thiem. And the Austrian had the upper hand, 3-1, including their semi-finals at the US Open. Also weighing against Medvedev was the schedule: His three-set victory over Nadal was not done until 11pm last night, whereas Thiem’s three-setter was over by dinner time.

Medvedev opened proceedings with two aces and a quick hold. Then he turned the heat on Thiem, working two break chances, and more than willing to go toe-to-toe on the backhand wing. But the Austrian survived a 10-minute test, 1-1.

The interchanges covered all corners of the court, but for the moment, Medvedev’s flat pace held sway. His shot-making has an extraordinary style, with a short, fast backswing, little spin, and exceptional movement off the ball for a man of 6ft 6ins.

But Thiem’s variety of shot, spin, power and footwork got the first breakthrough, with Medvedev broken from 40-0 up, concluded with a double fault. The Austrian went on to hold—after a severe test—4-2, and with a love hold it was 5-3. Medvedev replied in kind, but he now needed a break to stay in the set, and could not quite manage it, denied in the end by a cruel net-cord for a winning pass from Thiem, 6-4.

Would Medvedev keep control of his frustration at such a conclusion? Thiem apologized, and the Russian just smiled broadly as he headed to his chair. It was a delightful moment.

The first game of the second set produced a 29-shot rally of great variety, and Medvedev held. But Thiem’s serving was text-book—around 130mph and with variety, swing and placement. A love hold for 2-2 and Medvedev had to respond in kind. The pressure was relentless, and he missed a volley, then a backhand down the line to face break point, while Thiem was reading his plays, making few errors.

The Russian had to tough out the fifth game on serve, but he needed to make more inroads against a Thiem who seemed to cover every square inch of the court and more. Medvedev was frazzled, rushed, and missing too many first serves, but he survived a long service game, 4-3.

The Russian played a clever 24-stroke rally full of forehand variety to earn break point, but in a couple of line-painting exchanges, Thiem held, 4-4. Medvedev had to find a different tack, and came to the net for some great overhead finishes, only for Thiem to hold confidently for the tie-break.

First Thiem took the advantage, but they changed ends with Medvedev edging 4-2. His net-charging continued, and reaped its reward, a sweep to the set, 7-6(2).

Thiem opened the decider, and come the third game, faced three break points, but his serving came to the rescue in the face of some aggressive plays from the Russian. It was the same in the fifth game, three break points, but this time, an aggressive net finish got the break for Medvedev, 3-2.

The match was two and a half hours old, with more than 200 points played. Now Thiem got his serving back on track with a 134 ace for a love hold, but he needed to break to stay alive.

But Medvedev continued to attack with energy, and serving for the match, he stuck to his guns, served big, attacked every ball, and won through, 6-4, 37 winners and 28 net points to the good.

He summed up the match and paid tribute to a man who has now twice been runner-up:

“First of all what a match. I mean, one of my best victories, three sets against an amazing player. Dominic, congrats for what you have achieved. Your name is already in the tennis history books. You are playing unbelievable. I hope we will have many more matches to come on big occasions like this.”

The tennis was a fitting end to a wonderful 12-year residency in London—and delivered the first Russian winner since the first one back in 2009, Nikolay Davydenko. Yet for all the usual confetti and fireworks, a sadness hung over the trophy presentation and speeches. No fans, no cheers, a dying fall.

But it also heralded a fresh rivalry to follow into 2021 and beyond—one of many that includes former champions Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, plus breakthrough players such as Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov.

One swallow does not a summer make, of course, but this is the fourth different champion at the ATP Finals born in the ‘90s. Four of the top eight are age between 22 and 24—six of the top 12, too.

The last seven Majors, 2019 through to 2020, featured one champion and four finalists from the 1990s generation, and more than a third of Masters titles dating back 30 months have also been won by the 90s group.

The shoots of change have been appearing, albeit not growing as fast as many predicted. Perhaps this London finale, then, will end not with a whimper, but a bang—the sound of cracks in that glass ceiling at last.

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