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How Medvedev, the clay hater, turned French Open contender | Tennis News

As Daniil Medvedev sat on his chair after winning the Miami Masters final in April, his opponent Jannik Sinner congratulated the Russian in his on-court speech before looking towards him and saying: “Now clay season starts, so let’s see how you do there.”

Daniil Medvedev(REUTERS)

The comment, which made both the finalist and champion smile, was in jest alright, but it sure wriggled the jangling nerves of a troubled relationship: Medvedev and clay.

That hate-hate relationship—it’s no hyperbole, Medvedev has often used the word “hate” to describe playing on the surface— though found a rare moment of romance in Rome. From not winning a single match in his previous three outings at the ATP 1000 Italian Open, the 27-year-old won six this time to become the most surprising of the European clay swing winners. The Rome title on Sunday not only gave the self-anointed hard-court specialist his first-ever clay court crown but also pushed him ahead of Novak Djokovic to No. 2 in the world rankings and seeding for the French Open from May 28.

It perhaps doesn’t reflect his actual spot in the favourites’ pecking order in a Grand Slam where he’s only made the quarter-final once. Yet, from four straight first-round exits in his first four appearances in Paris to being among the contenders of the wide-open Rafael Nadal-less 2023 Roland Garros, is there finally some love brewing in the Medvedev-clay hate trail?

“I don’t think I love it. I love hard courts; my only love…in tennis, eh,” the 2021 US Open champion said with a laugh after winning in Rome. “But I definitely like clay courts much more now.”

That’s a start. Especially given how much, and how openly and unabashedly, Medvedev has expressed his displeasure of playing on a surface he’s equated to being “in the dirt like a dog”. On the same dirt of Rome a couple of years ago, Medvedev slammed his racquet on the court and yelled: “I don’t want to play here on this surface”.

The feeling was much the same this year as well, despite coming into the clay swing holding aloft an 18th hard-court title in Miami, winning 25 of the 26 matches and four of the five tournaments after his Round of 32 ouster from the Australian Open that pushed the former world No. 1 outside the top 10.

“When I came to practice on clay, the first few days I was hating my life,” Medvedev, talking hate and clay in the same breath again, said. “I was like, I don’t want to do this again. I don’t want to go through this again.”

The lanky Russian’s style of play goes a lot against the ethos of clay-court tennis. He flattens his groundstrokes and cuts angles, instead of working on them and injecting revs and spin into his strokes. The speed and bounce on the ball, not quite as true on clay as on the hard stuff, often annoys him. So does the sliding, an essential feature on the surface, which resembled more stumble than sublime in Medvedev’s case. He does, however, love to play—attack and defend—from the baseline, from where most points are dictated, won and lost on clay. Add his swift, smart and all-encompassing court movement and a more-than-decent drop shot, and there are key facets that overlap too.

It was therefore about tweaking his game and strokes to suit the demands of the surface, as Medvedev said in Monte Carlo last month where he reached the quarter-finals. Change of strings at the start of the season played its part too.

“I definitely have to change my game, because my strokes are too flat and clay doesn’t let the ball go through the court as much,” he said in Monte Carlo. “I have to find a good balance where I still play my game with a little kick to it… like changing just maybe some shots in the right moment. And that’s how I can be good.”

Medvedev has been good on clay this season, taking down a few established clay-court players in the process. He beat 2022 French Open semi-finalist Alexander Zverev twice in Monte Carlo and Rome, 2021 Roland Garros finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Rome semi-final and the red-hot Holger Rune, whom he had lost to in the Monte Carlo quarters, in the final.

“In a way (this title is my) number one, just because it’s the first one on clay and it’s unbelievable,” Medvedev said of his Rome title. “I would never have thought I would be able to make this.”

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