Somewhere in Serbia, or maybe at his adopted home/tax shelter in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic is tearing his hair out. He has certainly heard, or maybe seen on TV, how Daniil Medvedev was beaten at the BNP Paribas tournament Wednesday.
It was Medvedev who destroyed Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player, who was seeking to complete one of the true Holy Grails of the sport with a men’s singles title in the U.S. Open final a month ago. All Djokovic had to do was beat Russian Medvedev to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four of tennis’ majors in a calendar year.
Medvedev crushed him 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. There was nary a blink, seldom an opening, never a doubt.
Flash forward to a sunny Indian Wells afternoon, with a giant stadium partially full of people who had come out to see this giant killer, the No. 1-seeded player here and the No. 2 player in the world rankings. The expectation was that he would slap somebody around in the round of 16. Which is exactly what Medvedev did for the first 45 minutes of the match against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov.
Then, after winning the first set 6-4 and running off to a 4-1 lead in the second, the slapper became the slap-ee. The bottom dropped out for Medvedev. Or, more accurately, the tennis gods took over Dimitrov. Suddenly, he couldn’t miss. If Medvedev hit 20 ground strokes inside the lines, Dimitrov hit 21. Medvedev’s first serve drifted into the ether and Dimitrov’s zoned in on the service boxes. He started to resemble Roger Federer on a run.
The Bulgarian veteran, 30, who is seeded No. 23 here and has been as high as No. 3 in the world, just simply took over. No matter what Medvedev tried, Dimitrov had an answer. It was almost as if Djokovic had taken over Dimitrov’s body and was exacting revenge in disguise.
From 1-4 of the second set, Dimitrov won eight straight games, including the first three games of the third set. Medvedev kept trying to get back into the match, but Dimitrov allowed none of it. He kept slicing and taking speed off. Usually, against Medvedev, that is a recipe for disaster because he hits everything back — slice, topspin, moon balls, racket covers. Not this time.
In the final set, Dimitrov got himself to the service line, leading 5-3, and put his thumb on any last comeback thoughts from Medvedev by serving it out at love. It was a shocker. Fans who had come to see the excellence of this Djokovic killer saw instead the excellence of a Bulgarian journeyman. Medvedev gathered his baggage, including the remnants of a racket he shattered in anger that got him a code violation from the chair umpire, and departed the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Dimitrov stayed around long enough to answer questions from the court announcer, who correctly got right to the point: “How did that happen?” Dimitrov was short of breath and a little vague of answer, but he said he had “thought outside the box” a little more during the match and had also tried to control the points more as the match went on, rather than just reacting to them.
Medvedev, able to gather himself a bit afterward, was more analytical.
“Three things happened,” he said. “I don’t ever remember losing my serve, three, four times in the same match. This court is more like clay, it is so slow, and I hate clay. I also wanted to play at night, but they told me the schedule didn’t permit that and I understood, but I knew this day match would be trouble. And third, if Grigor plays the rest of the tournament like he did against me from 4-1 of the second, he will win here. He played the second part of the match better than anybody played against me during the entire U.S. Open.”
Dimitrov, even in his news conference afterward, seemed less certain of the whys and how.
“I guess I just stayed in the game.” he said. “I’ve been watching him. I admire how he is always finding a way to win. Because of that, I really wanted to play this match.”
Along with Djokovic, Medvedev and Dimitrov also have tax shelter/homes/residences in Monte Carlo. Maybe some time, when the tour takes a break, they can get together and talk about this one over a few beers.
On second thought, not likely.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.