MELBOURNE — Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev will take their rivalry to the next level on Friday when they face off at a grand slam for the very first time.
Zverev and Medvedev have played 18 times as professionals, and several more as juniors. They even shared a mother tongue, both growing up speaking Russian, but they were never “really close friends”.
“[Zverev was] saying something like he was friends with me and my wife, which is definitely not the case since [a] long time,” Medvedev said last year.
Medvedev’s wife Daria – known to most people as Dasha – is a long-time friend of Olya Sharypova, Zverev’s ex-girlfriend whose accusations of domestic abuse led to an independent investigation. Zverev denied any wrongdoing and an ATP-commissioned report looking into the accusations “found insufficient evidence to substantiate published allegations of abuse”.
Zverev vs Medvedev
Australian Open semi-final
The episode carved a rift between the players who had been little more than acquaintances up until that point, and it boiled over on the court during a heated encounter at Monte Carlo in April last year, captured in high definition and behind-the-scenes detail by the crew filming Break Point for Netflix.
Medvedev, one of tennis’s great gamesman, went a set and a break down and decided to start trying to get into his opponent’s head. He argued about line calls, started hitting loose balls about and inexplicably pulled out one of the net posts on his way to his chair.
“He’s just trying to piss off Sascha [Zverev] and make him come out of his focus zone,” one of Zverev’s coaches helpfully pointed out.
Whatever he was trying to do, it was working. Zverev blew a 5-4 lead in the second set, failing to serve out the match and allowing Medvedev to level.
He regained the lead in the third set, taking what looked like a decisive break, only for Medvedev to sprint off court between games for an unscheduled toilet visit. He made it back before the umpire called “time” but then dragged it out for another minute, taking a drinking and sorting his rackets out.
“A lot of things that Medvedev does are frustrating at times. He is somebody that knows how to play with the head of the opponent,” Zverev told the Netflix crew.
“I think there’s always a lot of unfair things happening in the game that he uses to his advantage.
“I’m not somebody that try to do dirty games just to put your opponent off. That’s not how I was taught the game.”
He added: “I like to win and lose by playing tennis.”
In this case, it was lose. Past 11pm at night and after more than three hours in Zverev’s hometown of Monaco, Medvedev sealed victory.
“I lost all respect for the guy,” grumbled Hugo Gravil, Zverev’s physiotherapist.
And once away from the crowds, Zverev broke down. In the plush surrounds of the Monte Carlo Country Club, Gravil tried to comfort the German as he broke down, sobbing and whimpering just yards away from where Medvedev was congratulating with his team.
“We can’t be like best friends, it’s impossible. Too much competition,” Medvedev said.
“He has Olympic Games, I have a grand slam [Zverev won gold at Tokyo in 2021, Medvedev won the US Open a month later].
“I do think grand slam is still a bigger title even if Olympic Games is amazing.
“We have been rivals for 10 years. On the court, we want to destroy each other.”
In the early years, Zverev seemed to be the greater talent despite being 14 months the younger, and their head-to-head record is a story of two parts: before 2020, the German won five of their six professional meetings. Since the start of 2020 though, he has only won two more, while Medvedev has won 10.
But Zverev believes he has a higher power on his side and that Medvedev’s on-court antics will be his undoing.
“I do believe in karma, I do believe that if you wish bad upon someone, then the bad is going to come back to you,” Zverev said.
Is this when the “bad” starts to come back?