Daniil Medvedev was centre stage during the US Open final when he pushed eventual champion Rafael Nadal to five sets before losing 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
Two years earlier at Flushing Meadows he was no better than second fiddle in the very first round – losing decisively 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 to Denis Shapovalov.
That match wasn’t really close, with Medvedev looking like a lost soul and helpless against Shapovalov’s power game. The then No. 69-ranked Canadian, 18, won 104 points to just 66 for the hapless 21-year-old Russian. Shapovalov, a qualifier, was fresh off a sensational breakthrough at the Rogers Cup in Montreal that featured victories over Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to the semi-finals. And anyway you sliced it that day, the scrawny, rangy Russian was a sad figure, overwhelmed by Shapovalov’s explosive tennis.
Fast-forward to two weeks ago in New York and Medvedev completed a four-tournament, North American summer swing that included runner-up finishes in Washington (Kyrgios), Montreal (Nadal) and the US Open (Nadal) as well as a title at the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati (Goffin). He earned 3,100 ATP points over that period and his ranking moved up from No. 10 to No. 4 (after finishing 2017 at No. 65 and 2018 at No. 16). That’s just one spot behind the uncontested ruling troika of men’s tennis – (1) Novak Djokovic, (2) Nadal and (3) Roger Federer.
Medvedev’s play has been stellar but it was far from that way against Shapovalov at the 2017 US Open. Here’s how it was described in this blog: “Daniil Medvedev entered the Court 7 stadium hesitantly on Monday at the US Open – apparently unsure whether he had found the correct way in. Denis Shapovalov followed shortly after the Russian and looked at ease as he walked out onto the 1,494-seat arena, acknowledging the applause of the SRO crowd with a relaxed wave.
“His match with the No. 54-ranked Medvedev was competitive for one set and then he was simply a class above and rolled to a 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 victory in an hour and 36 minutes.”
Summing up the look of the Russian on that day, we wrote, “Medvedev appeared to be a worried man from the moment he began the match. He had his moments but there was always a tension about him – as if he knew he was over-matched against a player three years his junior and was not comfortable. The low point for the 6-foot-6 beanpole came in the third set when he lost his serve trailing 3-2 with three consecutive double faults, topped off by a forehand unforced error.”
“About two-and-a-half years ago,” Medvedev said recently about his remarkable progress, “I kind of said to myself, ‘okay, now I need to really dedicate my life to tennis.’ Even if it sounds boring, it has worked a lot for me as you can see. That was the biggest change in my career.
“I was gaining experience every big match I played – against Roger, Rafa, or Novak. I was taking it with me to the first tournaments and at one moment I just understood what I need to do to win more matches.”
At the time of the Medvedev – Shapovalov first round at the 2017 US Open, No. 6-ranked Alexander Zverev was viewed as the most serious challenger to the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer domination. But the 22-year-old German now remains at No. 6, has lost his lustre and has a 10-7 record at tournaments since June. You never know exactly what’s responsible for a drop-off in form but Zverev has had an acrimonious split with his agent, a break-up with his girlfriend and an ill-fated coaching dalliance with Ivan Lendl.
Another example of a player who’s struggling is Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 21-year-old Greek who started out the year gangbusters with an impressive round-of-16 upset of Roger Federer at the Australian Open on his way to the semi-finals and then tournament titles in Marseille and Estoril. The No. 7-ranked Tsitsipas reached a career high No. 5 in early August but has now lost in the first round at five of his last seven tournaments – including Wimbledon, the US Open and the Masters 1000 events in Montreal and Cincinnati.
Since coming out on the short end of a glorious 7-6(6), 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 battle with Stan Wawrinka at the French Open, he has seemed listless and lost.
A charismatic, talented, all-round player, Tsitsipas will hope last week’s Davis Cup Group III Playoff success in Athens has helped him turn a corner as he heads to Geneva for this weekend’s Laver Cup event.
Shapovalov also suffered through a tough stretch after reaching the semi-finals of the Miami Open (Federer) in March, but has picked up his game recently – reaching the semi-finals of the Winston Salem ATP 250 event before the US Open and then playing spectacular tennis to defeat Félix Auger-Aliassime and Henri Laaksonen at Flushing Meadows. He continued at an extremely high level in the third round against Gael Monfils and was unlucky, after serving for the second set, to lose a 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 thriller to the 13th-seeded Frenchman.
If the No. 33-ranked Shapovalov can continue that kind of tennis after playing in this weekend’s Laver Cup for Team World, he could have strong fall starting in Chengdu, China, next week.
While the declines of Zverev and Tsitsipas have been inscrutable, it’s even more difficult to figure out a couple of Grand Slam champions in the women’s game who have fallen on tough times.
Garbine Muguruza showed all the signs of becoming a consistently elite player when she won the 2016 French Open, defeating Serena Williams in the final, and then Wimbledon the following year with a victory over Venus Williams.
But in her eight Grand Slam events in 2018 and 2019, the 25-year-old Spaniard has reached only one semi-final – at the Roland Garros last year. Otherwise she lost three times in the second round in 2018 and this year was out in the fourth round at the Australian and French Opens and the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Two years ago at this time the 6-foot Muguruza was ranked No. 1 – now she’s ranked an unflattering No. 26 and has lost five matches in a row dating back to the French Open.
Muguruza and coach Sam Sumyk always seemed to have a tumultuous relationship – characterized by her indifferent, and sometimes hostile, reactions to him during on-court coaching sessions. Sumyk and Muguruza parted ways in July and she’s now being coached by former Spanish player Anabel Medina Garrigues.
There has been an even more dramatic fall from grace for 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko. After reaching a career-high No. 5 in March, 2018, the 22-year-old Latvian now ranks No. 74 in singles – while having more success in doubles where she’s No. 27.
From a set and 3-1 down in the 2017 French Open final, Ostapenko caught fire against a jittery Simona Halep and won the match and her only Grand Slam title with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.
The past two years Ostapenko has lost in the first round at Roland Garros (Kateryna Kozlova and Victoria Azarenka) and only been past the third round once at a Grand Slam – reaching the 2018 Wimbledon semi-finals.
This year she was beaten in the first round of the first three Grand Slam events and then made the third round at the US Open before losing to unheralded Kristie Ahn of the U.S.
Muguruza has had a few injuries but Ostapenko has been healthier and is still working hard, but the results are just not coming.
On the home front, Genie Bouchard is on a 12-match losing streak and now ranks No. 152 after being as high as No. 5 in October, 2014. But she at least has had a few physical setbacks to deal with – mainly abdominal strains.
All these declines – slumps they are usually called in team sports – are difficult to fathom. It can be everything from outside distractions to having raised unrealistic expectations, from injuries to the growing pains of young athletes starting out in their professions. And performance can be affected by issues within a player’s game or the dynamics of their games related to other players.
Whatever the explanation, Daniil Medvedev’s recent success is an example that shows it’s always possible for things to change in a hurry. That day at the US Open – August 28, 2017 – in Court 7 against Shapovalov, no one could have imagined, two years later, him being just a few more confident strokes away from winning the US Open title in a classic five-set duel with the great Rafael Nadal.
Bianca Andreescu has received acclaim for her US Open triumph from a broad variety of people and groups. The popular ESPN daily show Pardon The Interruption features a collage of topical sports figures in the background behind its co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Andreescu made it last week and her face can be seen here just to the left of Wilbon.
Andreescu also received praise from the two-time NBA MVP, Steve Nash. Playing in the Dirk Nowitzki Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic in Dallas last weekend, the 45-year-old Canadian said about the Andreescu victory at the US Open, “It was incredible. I’ve never seen a Canadian win a major – to see Bianca come through in the fashion she did, playing with that much game and that much of a winning mentality. It’s a pleasure to have a Canadian win a major but also to have one win with so much game.
“We have a great crop of young Canadians – Bianca but also Félix and Denis and some of the others. So it’s exciting to get behind our tennis players. To see Bianca emerge like that this season has been incredible.”
Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz