Novak Djokovic is one of the toughest puzzles to solve in sports. The World No. 1 frustrates the best players in the world and quickly finds an answer to every question they pose. Even when the Serbian is not at his best, he manages to stay in contact before delivering a heartbreaking blow in the most critical moment. The 35-year-old has shown that plenty in 2023 en route to his 15-0 start to the season.
But on Friday, in the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Djokovic will face a different challenge. The top seed will play the winner of 12 consecutive matches, Daniil Medvedev, the one man who consistently frustrates him like the five-time Dubai champion does everyone else on the ATP Tour.
Djokovic leads the pair’s ATP Head2Head series 9-4, but that record does not tell the full story of their matchup. The Serbian has enjoyed a legendary rivalry with Rafael Nadal, but that is a different clash of styles entirely. Nobody drives Djokovic crazy the way Medvedev does.
“Daniil is one of the best players in the world the last five years. Grand Slam winner. Former No. 1 in the world. Not much to talk about,” Djokovic said. “His quality is as tough as it gets when you are supposed to face someone on the hard court, particularly.”
When excellence in attack meets relentless defence, something has to give 💥💥@DjokerNole #Conversion 99/133 = 74%@DaniilMedwed #Steal 34/77 = 44%
(Dubai Tournament Averages)#TennisInsights | @atptour pic.twitter.com/Cur1jATtr1
— Tennis Insights (@tennis_insights) March 3, 2023
In January, Medvedev fell to No. 12 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, just five months after sitting atop the standings. He won just two titles in 2022 — an ATP 250 in Los Cabos and an ATP 500 in Vienna — and was struggling as much as he has since exploding into the Top 10 for the first time in 2019.
The problem-solving magician was becoming his own toughest opponent. At his very best, Medvedev mows through service games and plays like a wall in return games, waiting out his opponents and making them uncomfortable. But suddenly, tough losses piled up and a loss of confidence made him more vulnerable.
The good news for fans around the world excited for Friday’s blockbuster showdown is that a lot can change in a month. And it has. Medvedev is back to World No. 7 and firing on all cylinders again.
After capturing back-to-back titles in Rotterdam and Doha, he carries a 12-match winning streak into his battle with Djokovic. Medvedev has faced just two break points in Dubai and his inimitable forehand — effective, if not pretty — is increasingly becoming a weapon again.
Watch Medvedev Thursday Hot Shot:
This is the true Litmus test for Medvedev. The third seed is back in form, but is he ready to defeat Djokovic and begin his pursuit to return to the very top of the sport? Is his level already among the two or three best players in the world?
“I’m playing good right now. But when you play Novak, Novak is always the favourite. He won probably, I don’t know, [his last] 50 matches and lost maybe four or five. So he’s huge. He’s playing great, moving great. You can never say that he’s 35 years old. But I always had some good fights with him, so I’m hoping for my best shape tomorrow because it’s the only way to beat him.”
Medvedev’s memory is accurate. Since the start of Rome last May, Djokovic has won 50 of his 53 matches. Three times during that stretch, Djokovic has defeated Medvedev, including a straight-sets victory in Adelaide earlier this year.
Watch Dubai Thursday Highlights:
None of those matches came with Medvedev in the form he is in now, but he still took a set in two of the three. And nobody will soon forget when Medvedev stunned Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the US Open in 2021, when the Serbian was one match from completing a historic Grand Slam.
But even an in-form Medvedev will need to be at his very best to challenge the Serbian. The same way Medvedev frustrates Djokovic, it works the other way, too.
According to a TennisViz analysis for Tennis Data Innovations, Medvedev won an astonishing 43 per cent of points from a defensive position in Rotterdam and Doha. But it will be a far more difficult challenge to “steal” points at the same rate against Djokovic under the Dubai lights. The World No. 1 has also been a serving machine in 2023, according to an Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis.
“I’m just really happy to be on a streak right now,” Medvedev said earlier in the week. “Streaks always finish. I will try to extend mine as long as I can.”
The question is, will it come to an end against Djokovic?
In another star-studded semi-final, two-time Nitto ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev will try to continue his return to form against longtime friend and second seed Andrey Rublev.
Zverev began the week with a 3-6 record in 2023. He missed the remainder of 2022 after hurting his ankle last year in the semi-finals of Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal. But the German rallied from a set down against powerful Czech Jiri Lehecka to begin his week and has gained momentum since.
“I’m starting to play decent tennis, which is nice after nine months,” Zverev said. “I’m happy about that.”
The former World No. 2 owns a 5-0 ATP Head2Head advantage over Rublev, who has shown a great fighting spirit this season. He has saved at least one match point and gone on to win the match three times in 2023.
“I want to do my best. That’s it. I want to fight,” Rublev said. “I want to show [a] great match and we’ll see what’s going to happen. If he’s better, he will deserve to win. If I’m better, I will deserve to win. So it’s simple.”