Daniil Medvedev's clay-court struggles
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
From virtually unknown to becoming the first player outside of the big four to break into the top two rankings since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005, Daniil Medvedev has risen to a position of remarkable prominence on the ATP tour. Ever since his magnificent outings during the 2019 American swing, where he made six successive finals, the last of which was a five-set thriller against Rafael Nadal in the US Open final, he has seemingly gone from strength to strength.
Since 2018, Medvedev has won a remarkable 10 singles titles at tour level and reached two Grand Slam finals. Although both his remarkable runs at majors ended in disappointing losses, the Russian has truly established himself as a force to be reckoned with. On his day, it is near impossible to get past his wall of defences, something his colleagues on tour are now far too well acquainted with.
Patient, resilient, unorthodox, effective and deadly, are just some of the descriptions of Medvedev that his fellow players think fit the bill. At 25 years of age, he has already laid his hands on some of the biggest titles in tennis, including three Masters 1000 crowns and the Nitto ATP Finals trophy. Along the way, he has proven that he is more than capable of beating the biggest names in the game right now, without any hesitation.
But despite all his successes on the hard courts, Daniil Medvedev just can't seem to shake off his woes on clay. On multiple occasions, the Russian has iterated his distaste for the dirt, most recently saying that: “I think my shots, my movement, and my physical appearance doesn’t suit clay.”
Over the past couple of years, Medvedev's struggles on the red surfaces are well documented. He made his maiden clay-court final in Barcelona back in 2019 and even the semis at the Monte Carlo Masters, beating Novak Djokovic along the way. So one would think it isn't that big of a deal. Alas, those two tournaments remain the only rewards for all his efforts on clay.
The Russian is yet to win a main draw match at Roland Garros, with his record in Paris currently at a dismal 0-4. In 2021, this has since been followed up by early exits in Madrid, as well as a first-round loss to compatriot Aslan Karastev in Rome.
Style of play
Standing at 6'6 tall, the Russian moves astonishingly well for his stature, and despite his lanky build can generate a tremendous amount of power from his groundstrokes. The USP of his highly unusual style of play, one that not many consider easy on the eye, is his double-handed backhand. A shot that any player in the world struggles to break down. Acting as a shot absorber, he can seemingly send back any ball thrown at him from that wing and has the uncanny ability to find winners from almost anywhere.
His endurance is commendable as he seems to have a spare set of lungs to help win even the lengthiest of rallies. His baseline game is complemented by a very reliable forehand, one that he can flatten out with equally devastating measure. Not to forget, a massive serve that earns him a ton of free points.
So then, what exactly is the problem? Medvedev's game style is clearly proven and has earned him a fair few plaudits. What holds the 25-year old back from dominating on the dirt?
Conditions on clay
The first influencing factor is, of course, the conditions of the surface. It is no secret that Medvedev thrives on fast surfaces where the ball zips through the air and does not bounce as much. On clay, the ball always holds up far more and can gain a lot of air. The higher balls, therefore, become an important facet of the tactical approach.
There is minimal scope to take time away from your opponent on clay, and due to the slower bounce, the big servers often suffer. Medvedev is no exception, as his serve is often key in getting him out of tricky situations.
His ability to flatten a ball out to end points quickly is rendered far more ineffective since the ball sits up and allows the opponent a lot more time to chase down the shot.
A lack of adaptability
Daniil Medvedev's otherwise solid game-style does have a glaring weak point, however. The Russian looks extremely uncomfortable when coming to the net, as seen by his almost-stubborn disposition towards sticking to the baseline. Part of this could be owing to his physical stature since someone as tall as him will find it tough to cover the net with the same agility as that of a shorter player.
But aside from that, he simply turns into a sitting duck more often than not when going forward. He seems hesitant to finish the easy volleys he gets on top of the net, or worse, he misses them and loses a point he was in complete control of.
Clay is a surface that is massively advantageous to a defensive brand of tennis. That automatically translates to far more balls returning to one's end of the court than on other surfaces. Thus, it is natural that a player like Medvedev, who likes to dictate and finish points from the baseline, will find it extremely difficult to execute his game plan. The longer the rallies get without any advantage for either player, the more is left up to chance.
However, if Medvedev were to add more variety by throwing in the occasional slice or increasing the frequency of his drop shots, there can be much greater results on clay. After moving his opponent from side to side, he has to pick his moments and move forward without hesitation to finish off points instead of relying on errors.
Another aspect to consider is adding more topspin to his groundstrokes and force his opponent to play off higher balls, making him move far behind the baseline and using that time to advance forward. For both these adjustments, however, he will have to work extensively on his volleying and net play, but for more success on the clay, it is imperative.
The psychological element
Part of the adversity Medvedev faces on clay courts could be put down to his own aversion to the surface. And he does not hide his love-hate relationship with it either. During his opening match in Madrid against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, an agitated Medvedev swatted his racket at the ground as he audibly stated that he does not want to play on this surface.
“But honestly, there’s nothing I like on clay. There’s always bad bounces, you’re dirty after playing. I really don’t enjoy playing on clay.” - Daniil Medvedev on the clay season
The Russian is currently seen as one of the prime figures to take over the mantle of world number one from Djokovic and perhaps symbolising the end of the big 3's unparalleled dominance. But for that, his disposition towards clay will have to change since he will have to prove himself on every stage to do so.
After early exits in Madrid and now Rome, Medvedev will have to wait a little longer in his chase of the number one spot in the FedEx ATP rankings. He has beaten some top players on clay two years ago, and he knows it.
The only other barrier that remains is his frustration when things don't go right on the clay, which according to himself, take some time. If he does not lose his head, then everyone is well aware that Medvedev has more than enough quality to showcase his skills on any surface.
Now it's a waiting game to see how the Russian develops as the season goes on. With the French Open looming large, could this finally be the year he makes his breakthrough on Phillipe-Chatrier?