There was no easing into the Australian Open for Daniil Medvedev. The hottest player of the US hard court season (win-loss record of 20-3) was put to the test by last year's Australian Open quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe in the opening round on Tuesday.
The Russian started and finished the match impressively to carve out a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 win in two hours and 36 minutes. But, in between, there were plenty of moments of anxiety, some self-inflicted, some by the pressure Tiafoe created.
"It was a really tough match, a little bit up and down from both of us," admitted the 23-year-old in the courtside interview. "I think I could do many things better, but he made me play better. For the first round, it's a big win, so I'm really happy to finally get the win."
Both Medvedev and Tiafoe were part of the first wave of ATP's Next Gen. And the duo made their move at the beginning of 2019. While Medvedev's fourth round finish at the Australian Open was his best till then, the American ousted players like Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov to make it to his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal. Their paths, however, have diverged since.
Tiafoe struggled to recreate that magic, while Medvedev made a silent march up the rankings. The Russian emerged not only as a serious Slam contender but the next enfant terrible of the tennis world. His run to the US Open finals, laced with controversy, grit and good humour, was the most memorable by a Next Genner so far. Having risen to No 4 in the world, Medvedev started the season with a 4-1 record at the ATP Cup " his only loss coming to Novak Djokovic.
If Medvedev came into the Australian Open wanting to continue that momentum, Tiafoe arrived hoping to build some. The American has slipped (from high of 29) to No 50 in the world and had a point to prove.
The 22-year-old walked into the Rod Laver Arena wearing a shade of pink that matched his daring game.
Medvedev, who wore a more conventional blue and grey, is just as explosive and amazingly athletic for a man 6'6 tall but layers it with smart court craft. And he put all of that to use to jump to a 4-1 lead in the opening set.
But Tiafoe wasn't going to let either the disparity in the rankings or the quick start by Medvedev to deter him. Stepping in on Medvedev's big serve, the American recovered a break with a cracking backhand down-the-line return winner.
The last point of the eighth game though told the story of the first set and offered a glimpse of things to come. With Medvedev up a game point, the players traded some quick punches. Standing mid-court Tiafoe slapped the ball as hard as he could, Medevedev, stationed at the net, rebuked them, once, twice¦five times. The 17-shot rally closed with a frame ball by the Russian flopping just out of reach of his rival.
Through the match, Tiafoe would try to pin the Russian back, only for Medvedev to wiggle out of the corner. The fourth seed cancelled out his 13 aces with 12 double faults and 42 winners with 42 unforced errors, but he did enough, kept enough balls in play to edge out the American.
The match came alive in the second set when Tiafoe stepped up the aggression. He attacked through his serve and forehand and tracked the ball well to the net. He took time away from the lanky Russian, forcing him into errors. The American got a timely break " at love"to go 5-4 up. Digging himself out of a possibly tricky 15-30 situation, Tiafoe served out the set to level the match.
In the third set, Medvedev once again got an early break and went 2-0 up. Having saved three break points in the third game " the third with his fastest serve of the match, a 209kphm ace " he let Tiafoe back into the set in the next. A double fault by Medvedev gave Tiafoe a break point in the fifth game, and he converted it with a deft forehand volley.
"Many points in the match I felt 'Ok, I've got the momentum, I need to prolong it, make a further step', and straight away he kept coming back," the Russian rued.
The American is spirited, but can also be over-adventurous. Having tussled gamely with Medvedev for almost two hours, Tiafoe started leaking errors, especially on the forehand, repeatedly by the end of the third set. Three back-to-back errors from his racquet gave Medvedev a 0-40 advantage and three set points in the 10th game. The Russian grabbed the chance, coming up with an incredible pick-up volley to win the set. He was clenching his fists now, perhaps aware that the storm had passed.
It was only a bad service game by Medvedev that helped Tiafoe get back a break in the fourth set. But the Russian, who was flying around the court, won three out of three break points and finished the match strongly at 6-2.
As the fourth seed said, he was far from perfect on Tuesday. But Medvedev did enough to live and fight another day.