ATP Finals 2021: Medvedev edges Zverev in Turin, and in their 11-match rivalry
Defending champion Medvedev tops Red Group and has semi-finals in sight
World No1 Novak Djokovic is arguably the hot favourite to win this year’s Nitto ATP Finals in Turin.
After all, he has stacked up record after record throughout the 2021 season. Those successes were encapsulated in the huge silver trophy he collected for a record seventh time after his opening win at the tournament.
But if pundits had to choose the direction from which the strongest challenge might emerge, many would waver between world No2 Daniil Medvedev and No3 Alexander Zverev. For of the other seven players in the tournament, these two have put together the stand-out arguments—not just in number but in the quality of their titles.
Medvedev, whose rangy, unconventional, powerful game and sharp tactical brain have consolidated his place just behind Djokovic, is the only man among the seven 25-and-under players in Turin to win a Major title, and that against the 34-year-old Serb himself. He also reached the final of the Australian Open, losing to Djokovic—just as he did in the Paris Masters less than a fortnight ago.
Even so, the tall Russian’s resumé this year did include a Masters title—a career fourth—in Toronto, and played a big part in winning the ATP Cup. Marseille and Mallorca made it four titles, and his win over Hubert Hurkacz in his first match in Turin took him to 55 match-wins for the year.
One man, though, stacked up more match-wins: Zverev, with 56. The German also won one more title than Medvedev, including two Masters in Madrid and Cincinnati—taking his career tally to five. And while he has thus far only reached one Major final, in New York last year, he won something none of the other Turin eight have: an Olympic gold medal.
So far, so close for these two 6ft 6in powerhouses, but already theirs has become a significant rivalry that looks set to dominate the tennis scene in the coming years. Ten matches played, five wins apiece, including one apiece in previous ATP Finals round-robin play. Both have won the season finale, too, Zverev back in 2018, Medvedev last year.
However, the latter would surely draw a lot of confidence from his recent record over Zverev: The Russian won their last four matches. However, because Zverev came through his opener in short order after Matteo Berrettini was forced to retire at the start of the second set, he could seal a semi-final place with a straight-sets win.
This latest showdown, then, carried considerable weight, for their rivalry and for the tournament. But both would surely hope this did not turn into a marathon tussle so early in the competition, when there remained possible battle with Djokovic looming for the weekend.
However, it did, well over two and a half hours determined by a final-set tie-break.
Medvedev had to fend off two break points in the first game, but having done so with pin-point serving, he strung together some strong baseline rallies, one up to 22 shots, to work a break point of his own, helped by a Zverev double fault.
Medvedev then hurtled to the net to break, 2-0. Zverev is no mean player at the net—and has doubles titles to prove it—but Medvedev was clearly determined to take the initiative, again came to the net when pressured on serve, and drew a Zverev error.
The Russian got on the board in the fourth game, and began to play more offensively. He held again for 2-4, but Medvedev seemed to have all the answers, both in the long baseline exchanges and when using the front of the court. He closed out another hold with a crowd-pleasing exchange of drop, lob, tweener and volley: 5-2.
Zverev threw down the gauntlet with a love hold, forcing the Russian to serve it out: and he did, with his signature fast, flat strikes, 6-3, inside 40 minutes.
The German was up against it in the first game of the second set, too, and had to dig deep to save three break points in a lengthy hold. He called on the crowd to show their support as he closed it out with an ace, but he was very quickly back to the line after a love hold from Medvedev.
Zverev was certainly not playing poorly, but yet again was pressed on serve. He held for 4-3, but after another love hold, he was back at the line, again having been forced to serve twice as many points as Medvedev in the set, 34 to 17.
The Russian came out the better from a 24-shot rally, not for the first time, with pin-sharp, flat accuracy to the lines, while also moving at pace in defence. But Zverev held, and after two more holds, it went to a tie-break.
Both got off to a shaky start, dropping a point on serve, then Medvedev was called a fault for touching the line on serve. It marked his first double fault of the match, and he was clearly unhappy with the decision.
His mood was not helped by Zverev acing twice to take a 4-1 lead: Here was a real test of the Russian’s mental fortitude. But Zverev made two unreturnable serves to earn set points, and a frustrated Medvedev slapped an error, 7-6(3).
There was nothing between them in the third, both serving well, but with Zverev now maintaining constant pressure, stepping inside the baseline, and pummelling the Medvedev forehand.
Both showed signed of the growing tension, began questioning more line-calls, gesticulated to umpire and box. Through it all, though, Zverev’s level was now containing the deep, flat strikes of the Russian, and he worked a break chance at 5-5. Medvedev served big and held, but it headed to a decisive tie-break.
The German went 2-0 with a net-cord winner, and changed ends at 4-2. But Medvedev was not done, and won three points in a row. A vicious return-of-serve winner from the Russian, and he had two match points. The first was saved by a Zverev ace, but the second was on his own serve. However, he rashly serve-and-volleyed on a second serve, and saw a Zverev winner flash past: 6-6.
But then Zverev faced another match point on his own serve, and Medvedev ripped a return to draw one last error. It marked his fifth win in a row over Zverev, 7-6(6).
It also takes him to the top of the Red Group, and if Hurkacz beats Berrettini in the night match, Medvedev is guaranteed a semi-final place. That is always supposing that home favourite Berrettini is fit to play. If he is not, the fans will still have a man to cheer: the reserve player is 20-year-old Italian, Jannik Sinner.