MASON, Ohio — With an unorthodox playing style one rival described as “good sloppy,” Daniil Medvedev has been cleaning up on the ATP Tour.
Medvedev defeated Jan-Lennard Struff, 6-2, 6-1, on Thursday in the third round of the Cincinnati Masters for his 41st win of the season, tying Rafael Nadal for the tour lead. In the last 17 days, Medvedev has had 11 wins, all in straight sets.
Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian, is now ranked a career-best No. 8. He was ranked outside the top 50 a year ago, losing in the preliminary qualifying rounds at this tournament.
This year, he arrived at Cincinnati after reaching back-to-back finals in Washington and Montreal, falling to Nick Kyrgios and Nadal.
Medvedev, along with ninth-ranked Karen Khachanov, represent a resurgence of Russian men’s tennis, which had been largely absent from the top tier of the men’s game since the retirements of the two-time Grand Slam champions Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.
In the quarterfinals on Friday, Medvedev will next face another young Russian, 21-year-old Andrey Rublev. Ranked 70th, Rublev defeated third-ranked Roger Federer, 6-3, 6-4, on Thursday.
Medvedev wins not through any particularly strong weapon, but on a game built around never giving opponents a comfortable or straightforward shot to play.
“I don’t have one shot that is amazing,” he said. “I serve not bad, but I don’t serve more than 130. It’s just the consistency of everything. My tactic is to make my opponent suffer.”
They often suffer considerably, bending and breaking while trying to fend off the flurry of flat, low blows that Medvedev flings across the net.
In January, Medvedev proved the toughest test, by far, for Novak Djokovic on his run to the Australian Open title. Medvedev drew the eventual champion into long, grueling rallies that left Djokovic harried and hurting, and calling for a midmatch medical timeout.
“It was hard to go through him; it was kind of a cat-and-a-mouse game for most of the match,” Djokovic said at the time. “That’s why it was so lengthy: We had rallies of 40, 45 exchanges.”
Medvedev beat Djokovic on his next attempt, in three sets, in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters in April. His next quarterfinal Masters victory, 6-3, 6-1, over fourth-ranked Dominic Thiem last week in Montreal, was even more emphatic.
“It’s so tough to play him: He doesn’t miss neither forehand nor backhand,” Thiem said of Medvedev. “On clay it’s a little easier to play him, but on hard, like in Montreal, where it’s tough to play high spin or low slice, he doesn’t miss. You have to go in every rally almost 25, 30 shots to knock him out.”
Fifth-ranked Kei Nishikori, whom Medvedev beat in the Japan Open final in Tokyo in October for his biggest title, said Medvedev’s greatest strengths were tactical.
“He’s very smart how he plays,” Nishikori said. “He doesn’t have a very big weapon, but he sees very well how the other guys play, and he manages well how he plays against all different guys.”
Perhaps the most flummoxed by Medvedev is seventh-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is 0-4 against him.
“He just has this completely different way of playing which consists of playing flat and low and not giving you much angle to play with,” Tsitsipas said. “I think sometimes that can be very disturbing, especially when it’s over a long term. He has a very, very weird game. I don’t mean this in a negative way; he just makes you feel uncomfortable when you play against him.”
Tsitsipas then lapsed into Greek to ask his manager, Nick Tzekos, to translate a word he was searching for.
“It’s very ‘sloppy,’ exactly,” Tsitsipas confirmed. “It’s good sloppy. He can make you miss without you understanding how you just missed. You miss shots that you don’t miss.”
Medvedev said he agreed with Tsitsipas’s assessment.
“That’s what I’m doing: I’m trying to make people miss with kind of shots that they are not used to playing, I would say,” he said. “Many, many matches I won just because people don’t get used to it and just miss many shots.”
His technique, in which his gangly arms and almost golf-like swings produce flat, zipping shots, draws mixed reviews when style points are awarded.
“I read the comments sometimes,” Medvedev said. “Fifty percent of guys are saying, ‘This is ugly,’ and 50 percent are saying, ‘This is funny,’ because I’m putting the ball in the court.”
Medvedev sees his style as funny rather than ugly, but he is still sometimes taken aback when he gets a chance to see what others do.
“When I see myself in photos or videos, I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’” Medvedev said in an ATP video this month. “But that’s how I play, and hopefully some people enjoy it. Maybe we can say that it’s a more amateur technique, so maybe more people can enjoy it.”
The score lines, at least, have been beautiful for Medvedev, who has won 22 of his last 26 sets. But more than his play, Medvedev has been satisfied by his mind-set in recent weeks.
After reaching the final in Washington, he said, “I’m honestly really happy about this week because I think it’s the first week of my life where I didn’t get crazy, even for one second, on the court.”
Medvedev acted out frequently earlier in his career, including one incident at Wimbledon two years ago when he took out a change purse and threw coins toward the umpire’s chair to suggest rigged officiating after a loss to Ruben Bemelmans.
“I’m always disappointed with myself when I do it,” Medvedev said of such moments. “I’m working on it. It’s getting better and better. Probably never in my life will I reach the level where I’ll have every tournament O.K. — there will be some anger flashes — but hopefully there will be not a lot.”
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