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Medvedev Seizes Chance to Make an Impression on French Open Fans

PARIS — Banned from Wimbledon, the Russians seem intent on making the most of the Grand Slam tournament at hand.

One by one, they took to the red clay at the French Open on Saturday, and one by one, they emerged victorious.

Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetova advanced to the fourth round in women’s singles. Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev did the same in men’s singles, joining their compatriot Karen Khachanov, who was already set to face Carlos Alcaraz, the Spanish teen sensation, on Sunday.

Medvedev remains the most intriguing Russian at Roland Garros on multiple levels. As the No. 2 seed, he is on relatively dry land for the moment: on the opposite half of the draw from Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Alcaraz.

He was once seemingly allergic to clay, at least the French Open, losing in the first round in his first four appearances. He still has a losing record on the surface, but he made a French Open quarterfinal run last year, and after hernia surgery in March that caused him to miss most of the clay-court season, he arrived in Paris seemingly fresh in body and mind. On court, he has rumbled past three solid players in straight sets, including the No. 28 seed Miomir Kecmanovic on Saturday: 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

Medvedev did not lose his serve and seemed to be one step or slide ahead of Kecmanovic from start to finish, absorbing pace, producing power and precision on demand, and using his big wingspan at 6-foot-6 to close down the openings.

“Today was truly magnificent,” Medvedev said in the sunshine as he gave his post-match interview on Suzanne Lenglen Court. “It was all working for me. There are days like that, and I hope more like that will be possible in the days ahead.”

Medvedev was conducting the interview in fluent French. He has been based on the French Riviera since his teens, and with his droll sense of humor and language skills he is able to connect with the Parisian public on a level that is unusual for a foreign tennis player (as long as he continues to avoid berating chair umpires or breaking rackets in a fit of pique).

The global repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have included a sensitive dilemma for tennis, prompted by Wimbledon’s decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament next month. The men’s and women’s tours responded by stripping Wimbledon of its ranking points, saying the move was needed to protect its systems that in part determine tournament qualifications.

It is, as Djokovic described it, “a lose-lose” situation: full of hard choices and restless nights for those making the calls.

But Medvedev, caught in the maelstrom, hardly seemed a pariah on Saturday as he cracked jokes with the interviewer Marion Bartoli, a former French star and Wimbledon champion.

“He speaks French as well as we do, like someone born in France even if he was born in Moscow,” she said. “He understands what is going on, understands his environment, and it’s clear that it pleases the public here a great deal that he communicates in their language.”

Some of that is due to communicating for years in French with his longtime French coach, Gilles Cervara.

“Gilles is sometimes trying to use words on purpose that I don’t know, that I should know, that are uncommon,” Medvedev said. “It’s the same thing with tennis, where you’re trying to do things that are out of the ordinary to shake things up and do something extra. You have to always improve.”

I asked Medvedev later what it would take for him to be considered “a dirtballer.”

His reaction: “What is ‘dirtballer’?”

Apprised that it meant clay-courter, he smiled and said: “I’ll have to do better than last year in Roland Garros. That’s for sure.”

Like many a Muscovite, including Rublev, Medvedev grew up playing much of the year in fast indoor conditions.

“It was not even hardcourts — it was more like indoor ice,” Rublev said with a laugh on Saturday. “You touch the ball and the ball is like a rocket. You hit one ball and the ball is going so fast, even when you are 6 years old. In Moscow, there is actually plenty of clay, but the problem is there’s not much summer, only two or three months, so you don’t get much time to play on it.”

Rublev, the No. 7 seed and long based in Spain, has had more consistent results on clay at the pro level and was a quarterfinalist at the French Open in 2020 and a finalist at the Monte Carlo Open last year. His forehand, hit with heavy topspin and major racket-head speed, fits the traditional vision of a clay-courter much more than Medvedev’s with his comparatively flat strokes.

But it is very tempting to agree with Rublev that Medvedev’s biggest obstacle on clay is between the ears.

“He didn’t beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo for nothing,” Rublev said in an interview, recalling a 2019 upset. “So, I think it’s more about him, that he put this in his head, than it is about the clay. And we can all see now that he has won all the matches here quite easy, beating good players.”

Still, the path does not get smoother. Medvedev is in a more welcoming neighborhood than the top half of the draw, but it is still a rough neighborhood with Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Hubert Hurkacz and Casper Ruud all on the prowl.

Next up for Medvedev: the No. 20 seed Marin Cilic, who overwhelmed a weary Gilles Simon, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, on Saturday in the 37-year-old Simon’s final French Open match (he will retire at year’s end). Simon, one of the cleanest hitters and deeper thinkers on tour, gave an excellent summary of why it will soon be time to bid adieu.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of suffering,” Simon said. “I am at three anti-inflammatories and six paracetamols before the match. The only thing left to try is morphine. I know where I’m at. I’ll give it my all until the end of the year.”

Medvedev sounded world-weary himself after losing the Australian Open final to Nadal in January with the crowd against him. He looked tired and irritable in March as he lost early in Indian Wells to Gael Monfils and in the quarterfinals in Miami to Hurkacz before undergoing surgery.

Even his successes have been tempered of late. When he rose to No. 1 for the first time on Feb. 28, his breakthrough came as Russia invaded Ukraine, rightly darkening the mood. He stayed on top for only three weeks before Djokovic reclaimed the spot. But the tours’ decision to strip the points from Wimbledon, where Djokovic won the title last year, means that Medvedev is in prime position to return to No. 1 in the coming weeks.

Barring a highly unlikely compromise, he will be watching Wimbledon from afar, but for now at least, he is in the Grand Slam arena, in no mood to talk politics but increasingly eager to speak in French and about clay.

“I hope the better I speak French, the better I will play,” he said on court, the Roland Garros crowd already “dans la poche” (in the pocket), even if the champions trophy is not.

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