What causes Daniil Medvedev to melt mid-match and brings tennis’ prince-in-waiting down, will be the stuff future Grand Slam reams are made of.
Last September, in New York, Novak Djokovic buried his face in a white towel and wept. He sat in his chair, just a game away from a straight-sets loss in the US Open final, when cries of support grew into a crescendo around the arena. Chants of Nole! Nole! Nole! filled the air. Djokovic had got so used to being booed and disliked in the Flushing Meadows that he was stunned by the love. A sob of cathartic release mixed with his sweat on the towel. For years he had been waiting to embrace love but it never came. Once, according to the New Yorker, he even yelled “suck my d**k” in Serbian at an unloving crowd. And when love came on that New York evening, he broke down in surprise. His opponent that day was Daniil Medvedev, who in a remarkably sombre media interaction in Melbourne a couple of days ago talked about his own wait for love.
Heckled by the Australian crowd throughout the tournament, he finally wilted after the final. “This is a story of a young kid who dreamed about big things in tennis… From now on I’m playing for myself, for my family, to provide (for) my family, for people that trust in me, of course for all the Russians because I feel a lot of support there… if there is a tournament on hard courts in Moscow, before Roland Garros or Wimbledon, I’m going to go there even if I miss Wimbledon or Roland Garros or whatever. The kid stopped dreaming. The kid is going to play for himself. That’s it.”
It was moving, a touch sad even, but do athletes have a right to expect love from the crowds who turn up to watch their game? Can they even expect not love, but at least not disrespect and heckling? Especially, when like Medvedev, they have been constantly losing their rag in the middle – abusing the crowd, chair umpire, linesmen, ball boys (Medvedev once rudely snatched a towel from a stunned ball boy and yelled)?
It’s so easy to slip into a moral mess over this and look like a fool as there is no telling what turns on the crowd. Sometimes, as was the case with John McEnroe once he started winning, the bad behaviour became ‘character’; it humanised athletes, and made him a crowd favourite. Nicknamed Superbrat, tournament directors could well have put up a sign outside the stadium: come watch John lose his cool. He has called umpires “jerk”, smashed drinks trays, intimidated a lineswoman, called an opponent a “communist bastard”, trash-talked a black linesman in Germany by crying out, “didn’t know they had Black Germans”… the list is endless but by and large, the crowd loved him. Only a few like McEnroe have managed to slip into the role of the ‘loveable thug’; it requires the dark art of charm; not everyone possesses it.
Why can’t Medvedev, young, talented with a goofy sense of humour, expect people will love him as well? Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live, writes the psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips. In Medvedev’s unlived life, adulation and respect hovers. Perhaps, his tantrums and outbursts in the lived life are casting shadows on the unlived life.
At times he openly taunted the crowds saying their booing energises him and dared them to continue. Clearly, that was just a young man’s vulnerable bravado, as shown in his post-final monologue. Some of the triggers have stemmed from mistakes of others. After all, he was right in getting worked up over the fact that Tsitipas was getting coaching from the father. A sense of being wronged seems to push him at times.
At other times, it hasn’t been that straightforward, even to his coach. “I had this trigger one day when, at the end of a training session, everything went wrong, it was really crazy on his side as well as mine. After a calm discussion, I told him that I thought this work was necessary,” the coach Gilles Cervara told tennismajors.com (TM).
Medvedev and Cervara sought out the French sports psychologist and high-performance coach Francisca Dauzet. “He has a monstrous mental potential, that is to say a rare ability to explore his thoughts,” she told TM.
Making thoughts go where they need to go has been Medvedev’s attempt. He knows his demons. But as its with these invisible forces, it’s difficult to pin them down always. “For a tennis player, there is, of course, the challenge of a tournament and a ranking. But there is also the deep unconscious stake: what does this achievement represent in my history, in relation to my family, my country, my public image? Do I have the right to get it? Would success be a risk for me ? It’s a complex patchwork,” Francisca said.
The inner demons might have made it into the world of GIfs and memes, but there is a remarkable sense of relaxedness about him on the court. Roger Federer has the grace and lightness of feet to slow things down even for the watcher, but Medvedev’s is almost insouciant – – and that for some odd reason is attractive and addictive to watch.
Nearly everything about Medvedev’s game is pretty far from the templates out there. Watch the way he serves. No real arching the back or flexing the knee, no attempt at turning the upper body into a catapult, the loose wrist does the work of smashing the ball across. On return of serve, he hangs deep, loose, as if he is about to chat with the ballboys. Even the way he lobs the ball for serve. Most players touch the ball with the racket, at least get it close to it, before they part and the hand lobs the ball. Not Medvedev. Two bounces on the court, and up she goes, flung casually.
He is quirky in his creativity. A few side-shuffling rallies from behind the baseline are enough before he tries to think his way to end the point quickly. At times, with a drop shot – he has a mix of them. It would be the two consecutive failed drop shots in the third set at a vital point that would get Rafael Nadal back in the championship game in Melbourne. Sometimes, it’s the slice or the lob. If he finds the returner hanging too deep, he would pull out that gobsmacking slice serve on to the ad court to the forehand. Youtube has a replay of the slice serve to Taro Daniel in the Salem Open from 2018, which is worth a look. Taro seems well positioned for the slice serve, standing wider than usual, but the ball’s obtuse angle leaves him with no chance but just to gape at its departing trail. His forehands skims flat and low; so do his backhands. He is ushering in the era of flat hitters.
“He’s like a chess master,” McEnroe once told NYTimes. “He just plays old school a little bit. He’s strategizing, he’s thinking ahead. These are the types of guys that we need.”
But it appears the crowds at large, nearly everywhere, seem to be irritated with his on-court conduct. Just not when he is playing the big favourites, but even during the initial rounds. Only they will know for sure, but at least he seems to think they want him to lose.
Even as a 10-year old, Medvedev has been like this on court. His childhood friend Andrey Rublev, the world No 7, has recounted some of their matches as kids. Medvedev was probably 9-10, then.
“One of us rolling on the court and other crying, ‘everything is terrible’. And it was 3-4 hours of this. We would flip out differently. I would throw racquets, crying, whining. I was grabbing clay from the court and eating it!
“Daniel was throwing rackets but without crying and whining. Instead, he would yell at everything and everyone around him. Including judges. So he was nuts like that. He could tell the judges what he thought of them. Someone would simply pass by and be told to go to hell …” Rublev has said.
The tantrums continued into his teens. “At the age of 14 or 16, I could get enraged during a match because I thought they clapped on a double fault. I would scream at them. They would scream at me. Many would say, “the guy is completely crazy, he will never be a good tennis player. I am glad I proved them wrong,” Medvedev has said.
Nothing much has changed, over the years. “I lost a lot of matches in my career when I was getting crazy. You never know when you lose a match just because you lost it or because you get crazy and lost some concentration. You can never be sure about it,” he said. “I was sitting after these matches, I was like, ‘I don’t want to lose these matches because I get crazy or because I lose some concentration because of the fans, because of the referees.”
He just doesn’t know what kicks up the red mist in him. “I will not say that I’m a kind person or a good person. I can only say I’m a really calm person in life. I actually have no idea why the demons go out when I play tennis.”
Last Sunday, something snapped. His inner demon has seemingly infused life into the demons of the fans, who went after him. There is no telling how the future will play out. Surely, it’s not going to be easy for him to slay his demons; we haven’t seen many athletes do it. Not Ille ‘nasty’ Nastase, not McEnroe, who has had problems even in the senior circuit. Will the tennis fans learn to like him and even love him for what he is? Djokovic’s career has shown that it doesn’t need to happen for results to roll out. But Medvedev, young, as he is, wants some love; not just trophies. Who could grudge him that?