The Medvedev Kyrgios Show
The usual return of serve edge, the 'low IQ' crowd, Kyrgios in short format vs long format, tomorrow's match of the day
Medvedev d Kyrgios: 7-6(1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-2
A wild night session in Rod Laver Arena.
Medvedev got booed a lot. Both were serenaded by the extremely cringe, Cristiano Ronaldo inspired, ‘SIUUUUUUU’ chants that have taken over the Australian Open. Kyrgios started multiple arguments with the crowd and umpire. Both guys hit buckets of big serves. Both contributed to one of the better atmospheres we’ve seen recently. And to cap it all off, Medvedev, in his post match interview, called the members of the crowd making noise between his 1st and 2nd serves ‘low IQ’ 1.
But the biggest divergence on court was that Medvedev did what he needed to do on return. And Kyrgios didn’t (couldn’t).
Readers of The Racquet from last year will know that as a general rule, pretty much everyone at the top of men’s tennis these days either serves huge or at the very least serves effectively. The game has moved to bigger and better serves over the last decade and having an effective serve is a bare minimum requirement for just about every elite player apart from the extremely anomalous (and impressive) Diego Schwartzman. But you’ll also remember that what sets the very, very best apart from the rest of the pack is combining that great serving with great returning.
Kyrgios: “The way I played today I would win against 95% of the tour.”
Kyrgios is right.
Kyrgios served excellently tonight. He said it himself on court:
“I was landing consistent 220-230kph serves close to the lines, what more can I do??’
Kyrgios to his credit actually played solid overall tennis, both from the baseline and even occasionally on return, for chunks of the match (he should also have broken to start the 4th set). But while Medvedev and Kyrgios have similarly potent serves, the return of serve edge was telling.
Medvedev’s ace rate on hard courts over the last two years is around 13%
Kyrgios’ ace rate on hard courts over the last two years is around 19%
Guess what happened today:
Medvedev’s ace rate vs Kyrgios today: 26%
Kyrgios’s ace rate vs Medvedev today: 13%
Medvedev’s ace rate shot up 13% compared to his two year hard court average, Kyrgios’ cratered by 6%. Medvedev finished with a hair under double the number of aces of Kyrgios (31 to 17). Out ace-ing Kyrgios’ x2 is incredible, but slightly less so when you factor in how much better Medvedev is at returning than Kyrgios.
The same theme showed up in all the major serving stats today. Medvedev’s 1st serve win rate went up compared to his two year hard court avg, Kyrgios’ went down. And similar for 2nd serve (Medvedev’s stayed stable, Kyrgios’ went from a 51% avg to 36%).
Kyrgios can handily keep matches like this competitive as long as his 1st serve stays in purple patches of form. But as soon as he dips outside of that purple patch, starts missing 1st serves or just stops painting lines with them, Medvedev will get his lanky tentacles into Kyrgios’ service games more often than the opposite.
Return points won:
Kyrgios: 23% or 27/119
Medvedev: 35% or 45/128
So if two players have similar serve effectiveness, as Medvedev and Kyrgios do, but one of them has 12% better return performance, it’s not hard to figure out that, over a long enough match, the worse returner is going to have a very difficult time. This is part of why Kyrgios’s record against the Top 10 diverges clearly depending on format:
Kyrgios in Best of 3 vs Top Ten: 19 wins, 19 losses (50% win rate)
Kyrgios in Best of 5 vs Top Ten: 2 wins, 15 losses (11% win rate)
Kyrgios, and really any player whose skill attributes skew heavily to serve ability, can lean on his serve often enough in a best of three set match, over three sets maximum, and cover up his various weaknesses or just roll the dice in a couple of tiebreakers. But over a longer best of 5 match, with more variance, those cracks start to appear, especially against more balanced players (who live mostly in the Top 10). This is one of the better arguments in favour of longer format tennis: that it requires, and optimises for, more complete skill sets.
I’ve probably laboured the point by now, but the edge to be found at the top of the men’s game right now is inarguably the return of serve. Huge and effective serves are a plentiful commodity in 2022, but, as Kyrgios found out again today, great returns are where that most elite 5% distance themselves from the pack. As I wrote last year:
Pick of tomorrow’s matches
Berrettini vs Alcaraz. If Berrettini wins this match he’ll equal the Open Era record held by Fabio Fognini and Adriano Panatta for most Grand Slam round of 16 appearances by an Italian man. And Alcaraz is trying to become the youngest man to reach the last 16 at the Australian Open since Nadal in 2005. Alcaraz beat Berrettini in three sets in Vienna at the end of last year.
Keys to the matchup: Berrettini really struggled to return Alcaraz’s serve when they met indoors in Vienna a few months ago (creating just one BP in three sets), with Alcaraz pretty comfortable just loading serves into the weaker Berrettini backhand throughout the match. Alcaraz’ own return prowess makes this a dangerous matchup for Berrettini who will probably have less serving advantage vs Alcaraz than against most other opponents, and therefore have fewer routine serve+1 forehands (one of his biggest crutches) than usual. Alcaraz especially doesn’t mind the powerful body 2nd serves that Berrettini relies on. Unless Berrettini has a huge serving day (even more so than usual) this could be an extremely tough 3rd round against one of the hungriest, and fast-rising, teenagers on tour right now. If the Italian can either have a banner return day, or push the sets to tiebreakers, then his experience could still be decisive in his favour. Good chance of a 4-5 setter.
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Top: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty
Calling other people ‘low IQ’ is ironically thoroughly midwit behaviour, but when people are booing and shouting SIUUUUUUU in between serves, I guess you gotta fight dumb with dumb. And luckily for Medvedev, everything else in his game tonight was supremely intelligent.