Editor’s Note: ATPTour.com is resurfacing features to bring fans closer to their favourite players during the current suspension in tournament play. This story was originally published on 9 August 2019.
Coaching Russian Daniil Medvedev, who reached his first ATP Masters 1000 final on Saturday at the Coupe Rogers in Montreal, can be similar to managing an artist, says Gilles Cervara, his coach for the past five years. You don’t always understand what he’s doing or why he’s doing it, but sometimes, you just have to let him be.
Medvedev was trying to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time, so in this pivotal moment, he decided to try something he had never before attempted. Before he served, Medvedev stepped far to his right and far to his left, standing where doubles players often serve, closer to the alley than to the T.
“He was returning everything. So I thought I needed to change something, to change the rhythm,” Medvedev told ATPTour.com. “I decided to do these crazy serves.”
Cervara remembers thinking at the time, “No, no, no.”
But the unconventional tactic worked. Medvedev evened the match and forced a fifth set, although he eventually fell in five.
You could argue it was smart of Medvedev to mix it up, to try something new rather than continuing what wasn’t working. But few would recommend introducing new shots in the third round of a Grand Slam.
Cervara? Whether it be Medvedev’s serving, his unorthodox backhand or his unusual off-court diet, the coach has made peace with whatever his pupil does.
“Sometimes you just don’t understand them. They see, they feel stuff that you don’t even understand,” Cervara told ATPTour.com. “You have to understand that they can see or feel this, and you have to trust them also. And with him, that’s what I feel.”
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No matter how Medvedev has arrived at the results, it’s hard to argue with his success. He’s tied with Roger Federer for second on the ATP Tour in wins this year with 38, behind only Rafael Nadal (40), the man Medvedev will face in Sunday’s final.
The 23-year-old Russian has won four ATP Tour titles in the past 20 months, including his biggest to date last October in Tokyo, when he beat Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Kei Nishikori for the ATP 500 title. And Medvedev cracked the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings for the first time last month.
“I’m just going to continue thinking, ‘OK, now I need to reach Top 5 or even higher’,” Medvedev said.
To reach the Top 10 and his first ATP Masters 1000 final this season, he has had to change much about his tennis. At the end of 2017, then No. 65 in the ATP Rankings, Medvedev committed himself to taking his career more seriously.
He trained harder – 100 per cent at all times – and built a team around him that includes a mental coach and a physio. Medvedev also pledged to take better care of his body, going out less often and cutting back on sweets, including his favourite panna cotta, a creamy Italian delicacy.
He’s had to limit snacking on his other favourite desserts as well. “Skittles, teddy bears, gummy bears. They’re really not good for health and for muscles, but I love them,” Medvedev said.
He used to devour them during the week, even hours before a match. Now, however, Medvedev abstains from sweets until the end of a tournament or when he’s not playing.
“Otherwise you’d probably see me jumping out of the balcony,” he said. “Because as soon as a tournament is finished, I’m happy about one thing, I can take a frickin’ dessert!”
Other parts of his game, however, have remained the same during his ascent. The Russian continues to surprise with his wide serve, even deploying it during his Winston-Salem Open title run – his third of 2018 – last August and against Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open earlier this year.
A few circumstances can make him want to stand by the doubles alley. “If you feel like you cannot serve an ace to a guy who returns everything or just to change the rhythm sometimes, or if you are tight, it can be a good serve because it has a little margin,” he said.
The tactic has become so successful, Cervara said, they even practise it. “It’s a real weapon so when he tries to do it he needs to feel confident on it,” he said. “Of course, it’s strange also for the returner… So why not to practise it if it can be a useful serve?”
The 6’6” Medvedev also hits one of the flattest backhands in tennis, a shot he naturally has had since he was a child. Sometimes Cervara will spot Medvedev hitting a backhand with his right elbow pointing to the sky and he’ll think, “’This ball is straight into the fence,’” but, again, his pupil surprises: “It’s in the court, and it’s a winner.”
The two are working on adding more topspin to the shot, but unconventional – something different – has its advantages. The pancake-flat shot can reach its strongest potency on hard courts, where Medvedev has posted his best results. The Russian has won 66 per cent (82/124) of his matches and all four of his titles on the surface.
Medvedev admits his game is unorthodox, but in a good way. “I think it’s really unconventional, and that’s my strength also, because it’s one part of the story if your game is unconventional, and you’re not good at it. And since I manage to put the balls in the court, it’s a strong thing,” he said.
Eventually, he and Cervara will improve his backhand. But some hard to understand parts about Medvedev will remain, like how he can never find his coach when they’ve agreed to eat together in a tournament cafeteria.
Cervara will buy his food and find a table for them. Minutes later, he’ll see Medvedev sitting somewhere else, only a few tables away but oblivious to his coach’s location.
Sometimes Cervara will snap a photo of Medvedev and send it to him, other times he won’t say anything. The coach will eat his lunch alone and shake his head. By now, he knows better.
“Sometimes,” Cervara said, “you don’t understand him, you’re just like, ‘Wow’.”