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AO Final: Medvedev x Djokovic

After two weeks on the worn-down courts of Melbourne, the two most disciplined players remain unbeaten. Medvedev is searching for his maiden slam victory and to be the first man to beat Djokovic in an Aus Open final. The stakes are high for Djokovic as well, with AO title number 9 inching him to 18 slams overall and just two behind Nadal and Federer. There are few secrets between these two and little to separate them. Djokovic leads their H2H 4-3, but Medvedev has won 3 of their last 4 and is riding a 20-match win streak back to Halloween of last year. Who wins tonight is nearly a coin toss, but here I lay out a few factors that I think will determine the victor.

The Legs Feed the Wolf

What has been made clear in men's tennis over the last decade is that defence trumps offence. Whereby a Federer or Nadal forehand was once the pinnacle of tennis, the greatest weapon on court in this era is your movement and reach. Both Djokovic and Medvedev play a style that places a premium on making balls. With unmatched discipline and depth through the middle of the court, opponents are left with two choices: out-grind them, or hit through them. We have seen over the past few rounds how hard it is: Rublev looked like he had punched himself to exhaustion trying to hit through Medvedev's defences, and Tsitsipas was forced to press from the start of his match after a five-set battle in the prior round against Nadal. The giant-killing run of Karatsev ended in a whimper to a rejuvenated Djokovic. Errors flowed freely and none of these players got a set.

As the evolution of the game stalled after the 2000's, all that was left for players to expose was the very essence of sport: athleticism. Where Pete and Andre showcased the pinnacle of weaponry in the 90s with their serve and return power, and Federer and Nadal extended on this offensive theme with more spin, the Djokovic and Medvedev era will be characterised less so by aces, winners, and net approaches, and more by opponent errors and percentage of returns made. Save for Nadal, the positions these two occupy on a tennis court and from which they procure winners is quite simply, unchartered. Where Djokovic lacks for height he has in speed and agility against his younger Russian opponent, and so many of tonight's points will be a test of patience, composure, and nerves. We all know the rallies will be long baseline affairs, but the match will be won with the two extremes of tennis; the drop shot, and the serve.

Short is The New Wide

Where Agassi and Federer conducted baseline business is nowhere near the norm; the baseline is something almost out of reach for players today. The new norm is to stand far back and rip from the stands. Winners become non-winners which become errors as player's force one another to risk more. Since this trend, the drop shot has become one of the most effective shots in tennis—it is even becoming a norm to drop shot your serve! With this in mind, I am sure tonight we will see Novak go to the well and utilise his backhand drop shot into Medvedev's forehand more than usual. Conditions are a little cooler in Melbourne today, so the ball will stay that little bit lower, aces and winners will be that little bit harder, and no one has a better disguised backhand drop shot than Novak Djokovic. Dropping it into Medvedev's flat forehand will do two things: 1) It will force Medvedev to stand closer to the baseline than he would like, giving up precious time to track down Novak's pinpoint shots, and 2) It will make Medvedev come to the net where he is almost allergic. This will be a key shot for Novak tonight, and if he can execute it well I think he will have Medvedev in a lot of trouble.

You're Only as Good as Your Second Serve

Hitting two first serves has been trending of late, especially as taller players discover that your odds are mathematically better compared to slugging out a baseline rally against Novak or Thiem. Zverev, Medvedev, Kyrgios, Bublik, and Cressy are all players who have taken destiny into their own hands with the second ball and gone for broke, often with much success. Medvedev turned around his match with Djokovic at Cincinnati in 2019 using this very tactic, and it paid off with a 3-set win. The Russian has a quick second serve and I'm sure tonight he will be looking to use it to catch his breath and catch Novak off-guard. If he can hit a decent percentage, it may prove the difference between the two.

The Verdict

Much has been said of Medvedev as the new rising star, but Djokovic will be quietly burning inside after the criticism he has faced this tournament with his injury antics. Never one to shy away from a partisan crowd, expect the Serb to be smouldering under his calm visage heading into this one. Greatness has a way of reminding you just when you are forgetting them, and tonight I think Djokovic will stamp another mark on his career and claim as the all-time great. It won't be easy though, and I think these two are primed to slug out a five-set classic.

Djokovic in 5 brutal sets late into the Melbourne night.

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