The big story out of Melbourne today is that Rafael Nadal actually looked like he’s in his mid-30s last night, as he blew a two-set lead to Stefanos Tsitsipas, with the latter looking much the fresher in the fifth set. That sets up a semifinal match with Daniil Medvedev, who when he hasn’t been yelling at his coach and forcing him out of the arena, has looked like he might break through at this tournament for his first grand slam.
Before Tsitsipas’s heroics, Medvedev took out his Russian BFF Andrey Rublev in straight sets. That makes it sound like it was routine, but it was anything but, as the two took chunks out of each other with numerous grueling rallies and games, leaving Medvedev in need of a massage just to stand up long enough to do his post-match interview.
Rublev’s and Medvedev’s games are perfectly set against each other to produce torture-rack tennis, with Rublev’s bombs-away forehand constantly coming up against Medvedev’s always-enough octopus defense. Rublev has never beaten his countryman on tour in four tries, and it’s usually because at some point with Medvedev getting just about everything back, he breaks down and either has to go too far into the red and misses shots, or he’s simply worn out. He’s never even taken a set off Medvedev.
Last night, it only took one point, that Medvedev didn’t even win, to force Rublev over the cliff.
This is 43 shots of utter exhaustion for both men, when the legs and then shoulders must’ve been screaming halfway through at the latest. It’s actually a show of patience from Rublev, who cracks a couple of forehands but more in the search for an opening rather than to try and win the point. It’s Medvedev who pulls the cord, trying for the down-the-line forehand that he missed. The look on Rublev’s face is of a man who would drink out of a mud puddle for some relief.
But it’s evidence of Medvedev drawing Rublev into his world, where he doesn’t belong. Rublev knows that going for it probably means either having to hit a couple of winners at least to win a single point, or pushing too far and missing. Grinding out points is not how he’s built.
The 2-3 game in which this rally took place lasted 14 minutes, which is equivalent to hiking across the Sahara in comparison to most game-lengths. Serena Williams can rack up a set in not too much longer on some days. The following game, a Medvedev hold took six minutes, which in itself is pretty long. On the back of the one before it, the two of them basically ascended Kilimanjaro in just two games. For the rest of the match, Rublev would take a seat between points at some stages.
Rublev would go on to win just two more games, going down a double-break to begin the third set and clearly being out of gas. This is what Medvedev does, he drags you into the deep water and even if he lets you go for an instant, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the juice to swim back to shore.
The semi between Medvedev and Tsitsipas will be a clash of tennis’ next big hopes, the two who have been labeled most likely to finally break through the triumvirate of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer to win Grand Slams. Tsitsipas’s game can be as ethereal or empty as his brain, given the day. But if you can outlast Nadal, you probably can outlast Medvedev too. Back-to-back, though? Awfully deep water.