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A Trio In Their Sights
The top three will fear Thiem and Medvedev as dominance fades
By Stephen Higgins | 23 November 2020
It’s four years this month since Andy Murray won an astonishing five events in-a-row to close out the 2016 season, and ascend to the sport’s pinnacle. That season, both Murray and Stan Wawrinka lifted what may be their last majors though I'd love to be wrong.
From 2016 until the coronavirus US Open, where boisterous crowds were replaced with a smattering of socially distanced pros, every men’s singles grand slam was captured by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Then, finally, Dominic Thiem ended the streak.
Could you ever have imagined that it would take longer to find fresh rivals for the big three than develop a pandemic-ending vaccine?
We are 17 years removed from Federer’s first major success at SW19, where he downed Mark Philippoussis in the final. Including that Wimbledon, there have been 69 grand slams to date. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic captured 57 of them. If you add the lots of Murray and Wawrinka, there have only been six other male winners in all that time
But as numerous characters in Batman Returns assure us...“things change”.
2020 has upended everything we know and hold dear, and that includes the untouchable status of the terrific trio. Serious resistance has been building for a few years, spearheaded by Dominic Thiem and seconded by Daniil Medvedev.
Thiem recorded his first win over Federer at Rome in 2016. That was swiftly followed by another statement victory over the Swiss on grass at Stuttgart. It was the start of a pattern. The Austrian has won five of their last six matches on hard, indoor, clay and grass.
2016 was also the season when Thiem defeated Nadal for the first time. After toppling the King of Clay on HIS surface in Buenos Aires, an annual tradition was born. Thiem expanded his repertoire in 2020 with wins in Melbourne Park and the O2. The 27-year-old has now won three of their last four encounters.
Solving the obstacle that is Novak Djokovic has proved more difficult for Thiem (and everyone else of late).
The world no.1 won each of their first five meetings, including a 6-1 6-0 blowout at the Foro Italico in 2017. To his credit, Thiem then shocked a subpar Djokovic in the following Roland Garros and another trend began. The Austrian has won five of their last seven matches and the two losses were...tight.
The Serb won two tie-break sets at Madrid in 2019 and then then came the 2020 Australian Open final he should have lost. Yet again, the momentum is currently flowing in one direction.
Medvedev is three years younger than Thiem so it was only 2019 when things really clicked for the Russian.
After three straight losses to Djokovic, Medvedev finally got the better of him at Monte-Carlo. The trick was was repeated again that season in Cincinnati. The world no.1 got revenge before Lockdown at the ATP Cup, but Medvedev notched another victory during his ATP Finals run.
While the 24-year-old seems to have figured out a combination for Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have been harder to unlock.
After a drubbing in their first match at the 2019 Rogers Cup, Medevedev almost pulled off a miracle against Nadal in last year’s US Open final. From two sets down, the Russian transformed his game style and stretched the match to five sets before falling in the decider. Medvedev finally earned a win over the Spaniard at the ATP Finals and it’s unlikely to be the last.
As for Federer, Medvedev trails their head-to-head 0-3. The last contest though was at Miami 2019. It’s fair to say that both men are in very different places these days and form card can be tossed out in 2021.
Changing of the Guard?
Now before we get ahead of ourselves, don't think for a second that I’m writing the terrific trio off. I'm confident that Djokovic and Nadal will be as competitive as ever next season. We’ll have to see how Federer looks after such a lengthy layoff.
However, the persistent Thiem/Medvedev onslaught cannot be ignored. They just seem to keep getting better.
After making his first grand slam final at Roland Garros in 2018, Thiem redoubled his efforts and repeated the feat 12 months later. In 2020, he might have captured two major titles but one will surely suffice. Until next year of course.
Similarly, Medvedev's response to winning a first Masters title at Cincinnati...was to capture another one at Shanghai. In the interim, we have watched him make a maiden grand slam final, make another deep run at Flushing Meadows, win Paris and the ATP finals.
They just seem to keep getting better.
With form and age on their side, expect a formidable 2021 campaign for the pair. The Australian Open, should it hopefully go ahead, could be the most thrilling competition on the men’s side for some time.
You can be certain that this flourishing duo will be ready and eager to knock Novak off his perch.