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Tennis

Daniil Medvedev’s Zany Clay Adventure Comes To A Fitting Demise

Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

This guy wasn’t supposed to do anything on clay. Despite arriving as the No. 2 seed at the French Open, Daniil Medvedev has never won a single match at this event in his life. The Russian’s hatred of the surface was on full display all spring, through many a tantrum and tetchy quote, the best of which I will leave here for your enjoyment: “It’s the worst surface in the world for me. But if you like to be in the dirt like a dog, I don’t judge.” But courtesy of some suitably hot conditions in Paris and a lighter-than-usual tournament ball, Medvedev said he felt like he was playing on hard courts, which he consistently dominates. So even as he played in the dirt like a dog, he could pretend, in his mind palace, that he was playing on more dignified terrain. Medvedev won his first, second, third, and fourth-ever matches at Roland-Garros, taking down several bona fide clay-courters along the way, including a straight-sets massacre of Christian Garin.

By the time Medvedev arrived across the net from No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, perhaps he felt he was just playing with house money, which could help explain why he chose to close it out in such a memorably goofy fashion. Two bits of context: Tsitsipas, armed with heavy spinny groundstrokes, has always been the more natural and successful clay player; he’s also Medvedev’s antagonist in a beef that stretches at least as far back as the historic “Shut Your Fuck Up” Summit at Miami in 2018. They are that increasingly uncommon but always refreshing thing in modern tennis: coworkers who openly dislike one another and don’t take any pains to hide it. The Greek took the first set comfortably and the second in a tiebreak. Medvedev, who never quite found his bearings in the match but seemed to be maneuvering his way into a competitive third set with a barrage of dead-on-arrival drop shots and untouchable serving, found himself under pressure in the 5-6 game in the third. Down match point, he took a break from serving screamers to do … this:

I’m all for judging process over results. For reasons of both tactics and entertainment, I am an advocate for the underarm serve, particularly on clay, where returners often park themselves in the front row. And if you think it’s a good strategy for winning any given point, why not match point, where it might be even less expected—and in fact, even a little twisted? Are you even allowed to do that? The answer is yes. Just try not to hit it so poorly, with such little spin, that a reasonably talented 9-year-old could tee off on the ball for a winner. Tsitsipas piped it down the line. It was an apt end to Medvedev’s unexpectedly pleasant trip to Paris, where he made it pretty far down a path that would have made him world No. 1, had he made it to the final. He will leave with higher expectations of what he can muster on clay, but also with his rival’s brutal assessment of that final serve ringing in his ears: “A very millennial shot.”