ATP Finals 2021: Defending champ Medvedev ends resurgent Ruud season to reach final

World No2 Medvedev’s will take on No3 Zverev for the ATP Finals title in Turin

Daniil Medvedev
Daniil Medvedev (Photo: Tennis Australia / Handout)

The expected men were all present and correct.

World No1 Novak Djokovic, five-time champion, winner of three Majors in 2021—and runner-up in the fourth: check.

World No2 Daniil Medvedev, defending champion, winner of that fourth Major in 2021 and the Toronto Masters—and runner up at another Major and Masters: check.

World No3 Alexander Zverev, champion in 2018, winner of Olympic gold and two Masters in 2021, with a tally of five titles overall: check.

But the fourth man to reach semi-final day of the Nitto ATP Finals Turin was not No4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, injured and replaced after one match by Cameron Norrie. It was not Matteo Berrettini, who could not even complete his opening match, and replaced by Jannik Sinner. Nor was it Andrey Rublev or Hubert Hurkacz, seeded five and seven but unable to qualify with one and zero round-robin wins respectively.

Instead, it was the lowest-ranked qualifier, the No8 seed, the youngest man in the draw who was making his debut in the tournament, Casper Ruud.

The first Norwegian ever to win an ATP singles title was ranked just 28 when he reached his first Major fourth round at this year’s Australian Open, and was building a strong reputation for his clay prowess: his first final in 2019 and first title in 2020 were both on clay, as was his first Masters semi, last year in Rome.

His achievements as he swiftly climbed up the ranks this year reinforced that perception: two more clay Masters semis, and no fewer than four clay titles, three of them back to back in July. Yet he was quietly developing some good hard-court wins, too: quarters at the Toronto, Cincinnati and Paris Masters, and his fifth title of 2021 in San Diego.

Yet on his arrival in Turin, Ruud had yet to beat a top-10 player on a hard court. But after a loss to Djokovic in the first match, he came back from a set down to beat both Norrie and Rublev—the latter a particularly satisfying win in a final-set tie-break after Ruud had lost to the Russian in all four previous matches. And he had that first top-10 win.

But now things went to a new level, to Medvedev, second favourite for the title by a small margin after Djokovic. The world No2, unconventional but effective in all quarters, with a huge serve—often a weapon on his second delivery, too—and able to move with remarkable speed and flexibility, could turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.

He had been No2 since March, and around the top four for a couple of years. So he was used to his status among the big men, confident, intelligent, and also the more rested of the two men, having played a day before Ruud.

The Norwegian had been slow from the blocks in his last two matches, losing his opening sets, 6-2 and 6-1 respectively, but this time, he opened with a love hold. Medvedev replied in kind, and then took the Norwegian to deuce via a 32-shot rally finished with a forehand winner. A Ruud double fault, and it was break point, and at his second attempt, the Russian made another forehand winner to break, 2-1.

Ruud was up against it, holding off those flat, angled Medvedev strikes to hold in the fifth game, but the defending champion looked like a man on a mission, determined not to be drawn into another three-setter.

The Norwegian aced to hold to love for 4-5, and was deploying plenty of variety in the shape of drop shots and sliced defence. But in the face of Medvedev’s serving, it helped little: The Russian sealed the set with ease, 6-4, having not faced a match point.

He was the first to get the break chances in the second, two of them, and on the third, the patience and tactical smarts of Medvedev got their reward after a 10-minute fifth game: 3-2.

The usually calm Ruud was growing more animated and frustrated with his errors—though most were forced by the incisive tennis of his opponent. He began to look mentally flat, his drop shots failing him, his forehand finding the net. Medvedev broke again, and served out the win, 6-2, in an hour and quarter.

It was a down-beat ending for Ruud, but a reminder of what an outstanding player Medvedev has become, able to take control from all parts of the court, tactically astute, with a growing array in his armory, married to speed of shot and feet.

His fans will hope that the tape on the front of his left thigh is not something of concern. He certainly moved fast and free in this match, but will surely be grateful for a quicker win. He said on court:

“As soon as you are a set and a break up you feel like you are in control, but that is when the danger is. You need to stay focused and fight for every point. In the last game I had 0/30 on my serve, and until the last point, it is never over. So I am happy I was able to finish it.”

He would have to wait many hours to find out his final opponent. Would it be Djokovic for the fourth time this year after they played the finals of the Australian Open, the US Open and the Rolex Paris Masters, with Medvedev taking victory in New York—and in their last match of 2020 at the ATP Finals?

Or would it be Zverev, for what would be a 12th time and the fourth this year? In their case, Medvedev had come to dominate the rivalry with the last five wins, also including the ATP Finals a year ago.

First though, it was Djokovic and Zverev for the fifth time this year, the spoils shared between the Australian and US Open—Djokovic—and the Olympics—Zverev. However, the Serb had won five of their last six matches, and had come through the tournament far more easily.

With yet another record on the line in a record-making season for Djokovic, he was again the favourite to reach the final for the eighth time.

Zverev downs Djokovic to set Medvedev final showdown

The world No3, who beat Djokovic in the title match in 2018, kept the Serb under concerted pressure in the first set, saving set point to stay level at 5-5. He could not convert two chances of his own in the next game, but heading to the tie-break, Zverev got the first point against serve courtesy of a Djokovic double fault, 4-2. After another exchange of points, the German went on to serve out the set, 7-6(4), after exactly an hour.

The first break in the second came at 4-4, with Djokovic forcing the play to Zverev’s deep forehand wing to draw the error, and the Serb went on to serve it out on his fifth set point, 6-4.

However, serving first, Zverev came back in the third, making the most of a clutch of Djokovic errors in the fourth game to break, 3-1. Djokovic threatened again, earned break chances in the seventh game, but Zverev edged a nervy hold, 5-2. He was, though, far more assured in serving for the match, and sealed his victory with his 14th ace, 6-3, after two and a half hours.

It was Zverev’s 58th match-win this season, but he must come back in around 20 hours’ time for a replay of his epic three-setter against Medvedev in the round-robin phase. The Russian won that after two hours 40 minutes, his fifth consecutive victory over perhaps his most significant contemporary rivals.

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