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Medvedev loses a match?
Dimitrov's slices, redirecting vs generating pace, slow courts?
Yesterday in Indian Wells Daniil Medvedev lost a match on a hard court. As this doesn’t happen very often these days I thought I’d take a look at why.
Medvedev lost to Grigor Dimitrov, despite being up 6-4 4-1 at one point. While Medvedev certainly started to spray unusual errors and looked understandably jaded after his incredible run of recent form, Dimitrov did a bunch of things extremely well to pull off the upset.
Medvedev came up with some funny lines after the match:
“I've never been broken 3 consecutive times on hard courts before. This shows how slow the courts are. Like clay.”
I think Medvedev may be forgetting that this has actually happened a bunch of times, even on faster hard courts. Off the top of my head: vs Gasquet (Montpellier 2018), vs Simon (Marseille 2020), and most recently against Djokovic in the Australian Open final this year. But the ‘like clay’ line is interesting, I’ll get back to that in a bit.
Medvedev to his credit also lavished praise on Dimitrov:
“(about Dimitrov) I have not much to say. He played second part of the match better than anybody did against me in US Open that I won. So again, playing this level, I don't see him losing to anybody, but let's see the result.”
The Medvedev jinx-watch is now most definitely on, but Dimitrov did do some things that other opponents of Medvedev haven’t been able to recently.
Dimitrov finished the match having sliced 70%(!) of his backhands, which is a hell of a lot, even for him (he usually averages in the 40-50’s). In an extremely stark contrast, Medvedev hit just 9% of his backhands as slice. It’s about as close to opposite backhand strategies as you can get, with Dimitrov probably preferring his slice backhand to his topspin backhand and Medvedev avoiding his, relatively underdeveloped, slice backhand at all costs.
But Dimitrov did change things up in set two. For much of set one, despite still slicing a fair amount, Dimitrov played into Medvedev’s hands quite regularly.
Medvedev loves pace. The Russian absorbs and redirects pace on hard courts better than perhaps anyone since Djokovic. In set one Dimitrov would routinely try to hit backhand drives like the above, and no matter how big the Bulgarian hit cross court Medvedev would be there ready and waiting to absorb that shot and take control of the point, like some relentless, sentient trampoline. But what Medvedev doesn’t like as much as redirecting the pace of others is having to generate his own power, especially on slower courts. And Dimitrov, in set two onwards, did a significantly better job of forcing Medvedev to create that pace:
In the previous rounds Medvedev faced:
Krajinovic: 26% slice backhands
McDonald: 20% slice backhand
20% is about average (or even slightly high) for what Medvedev has faced in his recent run of incredible form on the North American hard courts. Dimitrov, and his 70% slice dominant game-style and strategy, was a jarring departure.
After the slice
A good slice alone isn’t enough though. It’s what Dimitrov was able to do to extend points, and then back up the slices, that made this such a good performance from the Bulgarian.
Firstly Dimitrov’s blocked returns negated Medvedev’s serving advantage more effectively than earlier rounds:
And secondly, after Dimitrov was able to work his way into points, the Bulgarian set about with his patient backhand strategy of slices to coax the right ball for his forehand to attack. Medvedev was clearly aware of this dynamic developing in set two and so tried to extend points to out-run Dimitrov instead. This resulted in an abnormally high number of longer points but backfired in part because Dimitrov, thanks to his more natural rally weapons, had the easier time ending points with winners, offensive groundstrokes, or Medvedev forced errors:
Medvedev still narrowly won the short points against Dimitrov (usually on the back of landing a big 1st serve), as he had in his previous rounds. But not only did Dimitrov push more points than Medvedev was used to into the longer ranges, but Dimitrov was winning way more of those long points:
Dimitrov found his biggest edge against Medvedev in the longer points. This was thanks to the ‘two bad options’ dynamic Medvedev found himself in explained above. Dimitrov, largely thanks to his slice and greater ability to generate his own pace on his forehand side, won the long point battle decisively.
The above isn’t particularly new information. Both Nadal and Federer have used the slice particularly well against Medvedev in the past to exploit the Russian’s sometime annoyance with having to generate his own power. And Gilles Simon, who slices about as rarely as Medvedev but hits relatively low power and flat set of groundstrokes, owns a perfect H2H against Medvedev. The interesting thing about all this however, is the view it gives to the competitive landscape and the conditions on tour. Firstly, all the talk about Indian Wells being slow this week made me realise that the reason it’s being noticed so much is because we really don’t have any other medium-slow hard courts at the top of the men’s tour anymore. CPI (court pace index) isn’t a perfect metric but if we go back to 2019 which is the last time there were comprehensive figures for court speed, Indian Wells is a lone outlier in terms of medium-slow hard court speed:
The US Open was regarded as the fastest its been in years this year, the last time the Australian Open was measured it landed around 40 (or medium fast), and the days of Miami also being a medium slow hard court were gone when the tournament moved out of Crandon Park a few years ago The good news for Medvedev is that the medium-slow hard courts, that are ‘like clay’ are all but extinct these days. Indian Wells remains the exception at least at Masters 1000 and Slam level.
The other good news for Medvedev is that men’s elite tennis doesn’t really have many good slice backhands to replicate what Dimitrov pulled off yesterday. The Top 10 as of this coming Monday will be:
Djokovic, Nadal and Berrettini (and more recently Thiem) all have good slices. But Nadal is currently out for the rest of the year, Djokovic is uncertain when he’ll next play, and Berrettini’s slice isn’t as good as Dimitrov’s (offensively it’s comparable but defensively Dimitrov’s is far superior). The elite competitive landscape, and current conditions on hard courts, don’t exactly present a large number of matchup or surface problems for Medvedev.
And so, despite Dimitrov playing a wonderful match to grab the win yesterday, don’t expect Medvedev’s hype and momentum train to derail any time soon. The Russian is still the best player in the world right now form-wise, and he’ll probably relish the hard courts and opponents that round out the season far more than those in the desert of Indian Wells.
Probably just a blip.
Top & Bottom: Matthew Stockman/Getty
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