Not since February 2004 has a male tennis player other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray been the world No. 1. By comparison, eight women have been No. 1 in the last six years alone. Daniil Medvedev getting to that position would come at a time when his country, Russia, is taking flak the world over for its aggression towards Ukraine.
Geopolitics aside, the achievement adds another fracture to the complete dominance of the ‘Big Four’, which was reduced to the ‘Big Three’ once Murray’s hips caved in a few years ago.
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(If Federer’s immediate future looks doubtful, given his recurring injuries and ability to bounce back from them at the age of 40, the ‘Big Three’ could very well come down to a Two. Medvedev cannot stake a claim to the group as a replacement, given the generational difference—he is still in his 20s—and the ‘Big Five’ just does not have the same ring to it.)
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With Djokovic still fighting some battles off court—his stance on the Covid vaccine puts him in conflict with several countries’ current public health protocols—Medvedev’s ascent to the top was only a matter of time. He is only the third Russian to be No. 1, after Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
“It’s just a matter of time when he grabs the top position,” said Djokovic a few days ago. “He deserves it more than anybody else really, whether this week or any other week, it’s coming very soon.” Djokovic, who holds the record for the longest stay at No. 1 of 361 weeks, helped him along by losing in the Dubai quarterfinal on Thursday - which will push Medvedev to No. 1 on Monday.
Medvedev’s success comes on the back of his maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open last year, even if he lost in the final of the Australian Open in January to Nadal. The 26-year-old’s breakthrough year was 2018, when he ended ranked 16 after starting the year at 84. He took it up another notch the following year, jumping to No. 4 on the back of his maiden Grand Slam final at the US Open where he lost, again, to Nadal. By the time the pandemic-hit 2021 came to an end, Medvedev was perched on second spot, the first one outside of the ‘Big Four’ to get there since 2005.
The ranking would also bring into focus the immediate future of men’s tennis, the end of an era and the beginning of another one, and what it means for fans who find it hard to reconcile with change.
For one, Medvedev has not started off well on the popularity charts, despite his relatively quirky sense of humour and ability to say things that do not sound practiced. Perhaps it’s because English is not his first language and if he is someone who translates—in his head—from Russian to English before speaking, certain words may come across as out of place, but with interesting results.
With the crowd firmly against him at the Australian Open, the experience left him disenchanted. He rolled his eyes, made a face and mouthed something that seemed like “boring” when Tennis Australia’s chief was giving her speech at the prize distribution ceremony after the final, where he was standing next to the champion Nadal.
Medvedev called a referee “small cat” during his semi-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas; later terming it funny, and a result of being “out of his mind”. There have been other meltdowns, like kicking at an on-court broadcaster’s camera after he ran into it while chasing a ball, and insisting it be removed from the court.
“Bro, are you mad? Bro, are you stupid? His father can talk every point,” he screamed at the chair umpire during a changeover against Tsitsipas. “Are you stupid? His father can talk every point. His father can talk every point. His father can talk every point. Will you answer my question? Can you answer my question, please? Can his father can talk every point? Oh my god. Oh my god, you are so bad. How can you be so bad in the semi-final of a Grand Slam? Look at me! I’m talking to you.”
Even as his popularity plummeted in Australia, Medvedev made his disappointment with the fans clear at the end. “From now I am playing for myself, for my family, to provide for my family, for people that trust in me… If there is a tournament on hardcourts in Moscow, before Roland Garros or Wimbledon, I’m going to go there even if I miss Wimbledon or Roland Garros… The kid is going to play for himself.”
Popularity in tennis follows not just success but also perfection, entertainment, a uniqueness. Murray could not get the crowds roaring but had a dry sense of humour and intelligent opinions, besides being the first top pro to hire a female coach. Federer was neat, erudite, well-mannered and comfortable in his status as one of the game’s greats. While Nadal, with his broken English, sleeveless tops, rugged looks could be forgiven for pulling his shorts at his intergluteal cleft every five minutes.
Djokovic struggled to get ahead in popularity, for years battling not just two of the game’s best players, but hundreds of fans screaming in their favour. His recent tryst with the Australian authorities did not win him any fans either, though he seemed to have made some inroads at the Flushing Meadows last year where many wanted him to get the calendar Slam and the 21st major.
If temperamental John McEnroe could have fans screaming for him in the 1980s, Medvedev could get there too eventually. He does not have the American’s sublime skills or for that matter his predecessor Safin’s exquisite strokeplay. Since his playing style follows a traditional template, it would need to be combined with a personality edge.
Some of his compatriots are already peaking on the nasty meter. Opponents complain about Tsitsipas’ endless toilet breaks while world No. 3 Alexander Zverev, in addition to allegations of violence against a former girlfriend, recently got kicked out of the doubles competition in Acapulco for using his racquet as a weapon against the umpire’s chair.
For Medvedev, the top ranking is just the beginning of many battles ahead. He has reached the top as a player; next step is to get there as a performer.