Who wins, the immovable object or the unstoppable force?
When the player who has been at the top for so long that it is presumed he is going nowhere comes up against the player no-one has been able to beat for months.
Novak Djokovic’s success over the past dozen years has seen his dominance move from just against his contemporaries to the all-time greats of the modern game.
On the other side of the court on Sunday night stands Daniil Medvedev, a player who has been basically unstoppable in recent months and is rapidly making up ground on the modern greats of the game.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether dominant Medvedev can break the Djokovic dynasty?
The hottest player in tennis and the long way to the top
This is a list of the players to beat Medvedev since the start of November 2020 in competitive play: no-one.
Twenty times has Medvedev stepped onto the court, and 20 times he’s walked away the victor.
He’s claimed the scalp of every active top-10 player in that time, including Djokovic.
Roger Federer is the exception as the Swiss legend has not played.
The current world-beating version of Medvedev is a tennis Transformer — a rakish 198-centimetre beast who, despite his frame, is as comfortable chasing down shots from behind the baseline as bringing the heat on serve.
Medvedev’s serve is almost impenetrable, putting pressure on opponents constantly to keep matches on level terms.
Opposing players say that the Muscovite is so hard to play against because he is so willing to change his style mid-match.
If his more default stance of baseline shot making isn’t working, he’ll start coming to the net to change it up.
But it wasn’t always easy for Medvedev.
Like almost all sports, tennis has a heavy focus on the future and the prodigies.
While most sports separate junior and senior competition, tennis runs junior events at the same time, offering a glimpse of who may be on main courts in years to come.
Many dominant juniors end up making the transition to senior success, such as Roger Federer, while others find success a longer path forward.
Coming out of the junior ranks, Medvedev was a fringe prospect in the wider world of professional tennis.
Never progressing past the third round of a junior slam, Medvedev made it to being the 13th ranked junior in the world.
But this time was marked by constant disruption — by his own count, he was suspended for five months of his junior career for code violations.
For much of his junior career, he wasn’t a full-time tennis focused machine.
This was unlike several other top juniors who often left the education system; Medvedev stayed in school until he was 18.
Medvedev’s early senior professional career was a struggle. The lanky Russian languished outside of the top 300 until he was 19, and didn’t win a main draw grand slam match until after he turned 20 — the same age at which Nadal had two titles.
These days were characterised — by his own admission — by laziness, anger and a lack of focus.
A couple of years of churn outside of the top 50 but inside the top 100 were punctuated by the hiring of a new coach, Gilles Cervara, and a new focus.
Gone were the late nights of PlayStation and short days on the practice court, and in its stead was a focus for the top.
His fitness, lacking before, became a strength.
The languid hitter started rising up, to a point where there is almost nowhere else to go. Almost.
And when the crowd is against him, he doesn’t care. He revels in it.
The quest for GOATness
If Medvedev’s battle is against lost time, then Djokovic’s battle might be against all of tennis’s past. Most of modern men’s tennis fandom is obsessed with the concept of the GOAT, or greatest of all time.
Truth be told, GOAT as an idiom and not an animal (or a scapegoat) is a relatively new concept.
The concept of the tennis GOAT is a hard one to tackle.
How do you compare William Renshaw or Bill Tilden — undefeated in grand slams across seven and six years respectively — with players in the modern era?
The game of (lawn) tennis has rapidly evolved from the days of wooden racquets, long sleeves and pants to the technicolour showpiece that we see today.
Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is the Greatest Of the Open Era, even if GOOE has a much slimier ring to it compared to the GOAT.
At the present time, Djokovic has winning career records against the other two members of the Big Three and as the youngest of the set, it’s likely to remain that way.
The Serbian is set to overtake Federer for the most weeks spent at world number one (in the computer era) in the coming month.
If he wins the Australian Open, he will be just two behind the record number of open era grand slam titles.
At the same time, Djokovic has been an extremely polarising figure in recent times.
2020 saw Djokovic help organise what could be best described as a combination charity tennis tour/COVID superspreader disaster.
He has been constantly outspoken about the labour rights of tennis players and improving the share that lower-ranked players earn.
He’s also shown apathy or disregard against COVID-19 prevention measures, including statements understood by many to be anti-vaccination.
If Medvedev is an exercise in contradictions on court, most see Djokovic as the same off the court.
One unimpeachable thing is his on-court game which is consistently brilliant.
As evidenced by his run in the tournament so far, and across the last decade and a half, Djokovic doesn’t really have a weakness.
At the top of the list of strengths is his defensive play, and ability to strike winners and force opponent errors from almost any position on the court.
The serve, a safe haven for almost any tennis player, is always under pressure against Djokovic.
Like most elite players, Djokovic has a more deadly forehand as opposed to his backhand, but he still has a potent stroke on his non-preferred side.
If a player chooses to target his backhand, it can spell doom.
How do they match up?
Unlike most other top players, Medvedev has matched up favourably in recent years with Djokovic, pulling together a 3-4 career record against the current world number one.
His three wins have come in their last four meetings.
Against Djokovic, Medvedev has generally abandoned the drop shots and approaches to net.
Given the Serbian’s ability to make shots stick, Medvedev has been cautious to give up precious court position.
Djokovic may adjust to this and may also be hesitant to draw up to the net.
That could see a slog-fest from the back of the court, which would ordinarily favour Djokovic.
However, if Medvedev can put pressure on Djokovic by holding continual services games, Medvedev could be on his way to that elusive title.
Whatever happens, the GOAT debate is far from over, just like Medvedev’s continued rise up the rankings.