MELBOURNE, Australia — With a lone tear streaking his right cheek, Daniil Medvedev accepted the runner-up trophy after the Australian Open men’s final on Sunday night. He stepped to the microphone and told an engaging story about nervously hitting with Novak Djokovic for the first time as a young player, when Djokovic was the men’s world No. 1 and Medvedev was on his way to a year-ending ranking of No. 655.
It wasn’t a stretch for the Rod Laver Arena audience of roughly 7,000 to visualize the picture that Medvedev, 25, was painting of an overmatched skinny player being schooled by the multiple major winner. What Medvedev was describing sounded strikingly similar to what the fans had just witnessed in Djokovic’s 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory against Medvedev in their first meeting in a Grand Slam final.
Medvedev, who will ascend to a career-high No. 3 in the new rankings, looked less like a player riding a 20-matching winning streak — snapped by Djokovic — than an outclassed hitting partner. Djokovic returned serves that had gone for aces in Medvedev’s previous matches and he hurried and harried Medvedev into 30 unforced errors against 24 winners, only three of which came off his backhand, which Medvedev usually wields like a hammer to nail points.
Djokovic’s elastic arms, which allowed him to stretch for serves that others would just watch fall for aces, increasingly unnerved Medvedev, who had averaged 3.7 aces a set in his first six matches. Against Djokovic, he produced six total. Medvedev’s opening service game set the tone for the match; he put all of his first serves in play and was broken.
“It’s the kind of match I won throughout this tournament that he won today,” said Medvedev, who closed out his opponents in straight sets in five of the first six rounds. “Probably he made his game that good today that I couldn’t stay at my best level.”
Medvedev lost to Rafael Nadal, who is tied with Roger Federer for the career record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles, in five sets in the U.S. Open final in 2019. And now he has become Djokovic’s latest victim in his run of 18 Grand Slam singles titles — including nine at Melbourne Park.
At Medvedev’s age, Djokovic had six Grand Slam singles titles and had lost in the finals of two others, to Nadal and Federer. He had reached No. 1.
How deep can the sport be if the only player other than the Big Three in men’s tennis — made up of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — to hold the No. 2 spot since the summer of 2005 is the 33-year-old Andy Murray?
“Of course when you’re out there, you want to beat them,” Medvedev said. “You don’t care that it’s the Big Three or the Big 100. But that’s why they have so many Slams. They’re just really good.”
He added: “I’m not shy to say this. It’s just the truth.”
Djokovic, 33, described the next generation as “hungry.” It is led by Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, 27, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, who defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals. But only Thiem, the reigning U.S. Open champion who has graced three other major finals, has broken through in the biggest events, and his U.S. Open title came in a tournament that Nadal and Federer did not enter and that Djokovic exited through a disqualification rather than a defeat. What is keeping this generation from feeding its appetite at the Grand Slam banquet?
“They have definitely the quality to reach the heights of major tournament trophies,” Djokovic said.
He added: “But Roger, Rafa, myself are still there for a reason. We don’t want to hand it to them, and we don’t want to allow them to win Slams. I think that’s something that is very clear. Whether you communicate that message or not, we are definitely sending that vibe out there.”
Medvedev’s body language grew increasingly negative as the 1-hour, 53-minute final wore on. He muttered to himself. He looked imploringly at his coach. He smashed a racket. He hurried shots and points. By the third set, Djokovic was everywhere on the court and inside Medvedev’s head.
“Next time if I play Novak here in the final, I for sure am going to do some things on the court, maybe off the court also, differently, because at least I would have this experience,” Medvedev said, adding, “So I’ll try to do something better. Doesn’t mean that I will succeed, but that’s the life of a tennis player.”
The life in the sport that Medvedev has carved out for himself seemed more distant than a speck on the Mediterranean Sea horizon the day he was introduced to Djokovic in Monaco and began hitting with him.
Djokovic arrived late for their first session. And that, Medvedev said, remains the worst thing he can say about him.
“He was super nice to me,” Medvedev said. “I was really shy. I was just playing some balls, trying not to miss, for sure really stressed.”
From then to now, tennis seems, much like the flat-footed Medvedev on Sunday, several steps behind the players on top.