Novak Djokovic reigns supreme at Australian Open but calls Daniil Medvedev ‘the man to beat’

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Now comes a new challenger, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, as lean and wiry as he and a bit taller, at 6-foot-6, and playing the best tennis of his career.

Djokovic and Medvedev dispatched their semifinal opponents in straight sets, without depleting their legs and energy, so they ought to be at the peak of their powers for Sunday’s final (3:30 a.m. Eastern time).

World No. 1 Djokovic, 33, has the added benefit of an extra day’s rest following his dismissal of Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev.

Though the fourth-ranked Medvedev lacks Djokovic’s global name recognition, he is an opponent to be feared.

Medvedev has a blistering serve, a full complement of spins and flat strokes, and a wicked backhand that extricated him from his only rough patch in Friday’s semifinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas, when he briefly lost focus late in the third set, igniting the pro-Tsitsipas crowd. From an awkward, defensive position well behind the baseline, Medvedev uncorked a backhand passing shot that produced gasps from the stands and the announcer’s booth.

“[It was] the moment that I won the match,” Medvedev said of the backhand winner, which he called one of the best shots of his career.

Tsitsipas, who acknowledged feeling the effects of his five-set comeback against Rafael Nadal in the previous round, lauded Medvedev’s cerebral tactics, world-class serve and varied repertoire following his 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 defeat, in which the Russian hit 17 aces and 46 winners to Tsitsipas’s 19.

“He’s a player who has unlocked pretty much everything in the game,” Tsitsipas said of Medvedev.

Medvedev also has the rarest commodity in men’s tennis: the belief that he can beat Djokovic and any member of the Big Three who have dominated the game and hogged the Grand Slam titles these past 15 years.

Medvedev has beaten every top-10 player in the past three months — excluding Federer, who is not competing. His record against Djokovic is 3-4 and includes a 6-3, 6-3 rout in their most recent clash, in November at the ATP Finals in London.

Upon clinching a spot in his ninth Australian Open final, Djokovic said Thursday that he felt better than he has all tournament, with no lingering effects from an abdominal injury he alluded to earlier in the event. “I’m thrilled to feel this way,” he said.

Asked to handicap his potential opponents, Djokovic focused on Medvedev for his exceptional form, big serve, potent backhand and tactical smarts. “He’s just the man to beat,” Djokovic said.

Medvedev conceded that a spot of nerves is inevitable when he walks onto Rod Laver Arena on Sunday against Djokovic. But he insisted the weight of expectations will sit squarely on Djokovic’s shoulders.

“For sure, when we get out there, we both feel pressure,” Medvedev said. “I want to win my first [Grand Slam]. He wants to win number 18. We don’t know for who the crowd is going to [support]. … I think if we talk in general, well, I have nothing to lose, to be honest.”

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