Medvedev Loves(?)The Clay
Medvedev the surface atheist, conditions in Paris, and the Tsitsipas test of faith
Danil Medvedev hates the clay, then he loves the clay, then he hates the clay, and now he uh… loves it again.
The Russian has been playing some very good tennis in week one of Roland Garros. So good in fact that some may be left wondering whether his comments about clay earlier this season were an elaborate ruse, a misdirection to conceal his title hopes in Paris as he trollingly ploughs through the field with apparent ease, after spending much of the clay season looking like bambi on ice.
Through his first four rounds, the Russian has only dropped one set (to a very good Tommy Paul), and today he easily dispatched Cristian Garín, a particularly capable clay courter, in straights. Medvedev will now meet Stefanos Tsitsipas in an extremely interesting quarterfinal, and his renewed love affair with la terre battue will get truly stress-tested for the first time this tournament. Tsitsipas is one of the best clay courters on tour, and one of the form players of the clay season. Although Medvedev will take heart in knowing he leads the H2H 6-1, and the clay H2H 1-0.
So what’s changed for Medvedev, between the clay before and the clay now?
Medvedev himself puts it down to conditions in Paris:
“As soon as I came here these balls are much lighter, they go faster in the air, so that's why I can make them also drop faster before the baseline and stuff like this.”
“I feel really hopeful. You could see it today in the match, I'm feeling that here, at least this year with this weather, with these balls, I can play like on hard courts. It doesn't feel different than Australian Open for me coming into this tournament.”
If we take a look at some of the numbers, it looks like he could be right.
Performance from 2018-2020 on clay
Performance in first four rounds this week in Paris:
As you can see, Medvedev is posting some unusually good numbers in Paris relative to his previous clay form. Pretty much only his 2nd-serve-points-won performance is flat, and many of the more important categories have jumped up significantly.
Four categories in particular stand out:
His 1st-serve-points-won performance has jumped nearly 20% in Paris compared to his 2018-2021 results (65% to 84%). It was 86% today vs Garin.
His 1st serve return performance has jumped from 31% to 40%, and his 2nd serve return performance has jumped from 52% to 61%. A 9% improvement on both. What makes this even more impressive is that Medvedev has played against two huge servers, in Bublik and Opelka, this week in Paris.
His ace rate, per service game, jumped up from 0.2 to 0.6. He’s hitting 3x more aces per service game this week in Paris relative to previous clay form. While Opelka and Bublik’s poor return games skew this slightly, Medvedev actually hit his highest ace rate of the tournament so far against Garin today (1 per service game).
His unreturned serve rate, per service game, jumped up from 1.16 to 1.9. Or just under two unreturned serves per service game.
Medvedev is therefore finding the sort of free points on serve, and serve +1 aggression, that he’s come to dominate with on quicker hard courts. On top of that he’s suddenly managed to find some serious return form as well.
As above, Medvedev is completely dominating the short points on serve so far this week in Paris. And funnily enough, this clay improvement echoes his short point performance improvements on hard courts between 2018 and 2019 onwards. In 2018 and up until the Washington ATP 500 tournament in 2019, Medvedev was winning 71% of his service points when the rally was 2-4 shots while serving on hard courts. From Washington 2019 onwards he started winning 81% of his service points when the rally was 2-4 shots when serving on hard courts.
(Matt: Medvedev is often given a reputation as a grinder, but his 1st serve dominance improvement on hard courts, via serve placement variety and early point aggression, was a large contributing reason to him becoming devilishly difficult to beat on hard courts from late-2019 onwards)
This matches up well with the early point aggression improvement on clay in the graphic above, from winning 69% (2018-2020) of points played in the 2-4 shot range on serve, to 85% (first few rounds in Paris).
Simply put, in week one of Roland Garros, Medvedev has found it similarly easy to finish off service points, with early aggression, as he does on hard courts. The Russian is successfully imposing his desired strategy on this supposedly slower surface. Which lines up exactly with his pre tournament quotes about conditions.
“…with this weather, with these balls, I can play like on hard courts.”
But not only is Medvedev serving like it’s a hard court, he’s also returning well too. Even though he’s played against Opelka and Bublik’s first serves in week one, Medvedev has managed to win 9% more return points in the 2-4 shots range, 14% more in the 5-8 shot range, and a whopping 20% more in the 9+ shots range, than his 2018-2020 clay averages on return. Essentially Medvedev is finding it easier than ever to get into his opponent’s service games on clay, and once he’s in the point the Russian is consistently the stronger player as the point develops. This was especially apparent vs Garin today, a good clay courter, who most would assume would hold his own in longer exchanges vs Medvedev on this surface. But…
In points with 5 or more shots in Garin’s service games, Medvedev won 31 points to Garin’s 25.
Caveats and the Tsitsipas test
The sample of four matches, in the first four rounds of a Slam where the opponents are supposed to be weighted on the easier side, does not provide perfect information. Just because Medvedev’s clay performance has jumped up in these myriad ways against Bublik, Paul, Opelka, and Garin, does not mean they will remain in such rarefied air against stronger opposition. This is why the quarterfinal against Tsitsipas is such a fascinating matchup. It will provide us with some answers for whether the above performance bump was temporarily inflated, or whether it’s part of a grander story about Medvedev maturing on this surface.
The bad news for Tsitsipas is that the only time these two have met on clay, in Monte Carlo in 2019, Medvedev won thanks to some eerily similar serving and short-point-aggression figures as we’ve seen from the Russian so far in Paris. That day back in 2019, Medvedev won both the short and the long point battle, almost half of his 1st serves never came back, and he won 83%+ of his 1st serve points in sets 1 and 3. Medvedev’s return that day was also excellent, taking huge chunks out of Tsitsipas’ 1st serve (Tsitsipas winning just 69% of points) and 2nd serves (Tsitsipas winning just 38% of points). The good news for Tsitsipas however, is that he’s also improved in the last two years, and his adjustment to hitting more blocked/sliced returns against big serving Isner in the 3rd round served him well, reducing the number of free points the tall American had (Tsitsipas sliced 91% of 1st serve returns in set two of that match compared to 64% in set one, and put 80% of 1st serve returns back in play in set two compared to just 50% in set one). Whether Tsitsipas can find similar ways to poke holes in Medvedev’s big first serve will be interesting to watch unfold.
During their eighth meeting, this time due to take place in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros on Tuesday, keep an eye on the metrics laid out above. Either Tsitsipas will expose Medvedev’s recent clay court improvement as a short-lived, statistical blip — demonstrating that the surface-atheistic game-style that Medvedev currently practices is in for a rude awakening in the hallowed church of the clay court gods known as Court Philippe Chatrier — or Medvedev will continue to push on, furthering his journey to become a sort of accidentally great clay courter.
A man, and a game, for all surfaces? All will be revealed tomorrow.
Note from Matt: I decided to open up this Sunday analysis issue to everyone (something I’ll do every now and then). These issues are usually only for paid subscribers:
See you on Thursday
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
Top: Martin Bureau, Getty
// Looking for more?
Osaka Boycotts The Press: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/naomi-osaka-boycotts-the-press
Federer Redux - The Iceberg Flips: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-federer-redux
Rome Final Analysis - Nadal vs Djokovic: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/rome-final-nadal-vs-djokovic
Stop Screwing Umpires On Clay: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/lets-stop-screwing-the-umpires-on
Analysis of the Tsitsipas vs Rublev Monte Carlo Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/monte-carlo-final-tsitsipas-vs-rublev
Do Flatter Hitters Have it Harder On Clay? https://theracquet.substack.com/p/daniil-medvedev-does-not-like-the
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djoković Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match
Sample from 10 opponents
A good 2nd serve return performance vs Bublik is not surprising given Bublik’s poor 2nd serve numbers. But returning well against the 1st serves of both Bublik and Opelka is impressive.
Great write-up, thanks. Do you have stats on returns-in-play re Medvedev's results before now and this tourney? It'd be interesting to see if the percentage of returns in play shifted similarly, which could suggest a slightly less aggressive attitude on his part that opened the way for him to take more points. I also wonder how much the French Open's having moved later in the calendar this year, more into summer weather from Parisian spring dampness, has factored into his comfort level on the clay. Of course we'll never know
Great stuff Matt. Wondering since we are now a full week into the tournament, if there are stats on the pace of the surface this week? Feel like you have written a piece previously on court speed, though that may have been more specific to hard courts.