Column: Daniil Medvedev falls while Rafael Nadal shines at Indian Wells

Daniil Medvedev returns a shot to Gael Monfils at the BNP Paribas Open tournament.
Daniil Medvedev returns a shot to Gael Monfils at the BNP Paribas Open tournament Monday in Indian Wells.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Daniil Medvedev’s tenure as the No. 1 player in men’s tennis will be brief, destined to last merely two weeks because of his loss Monday to a smart and energized Gael Monfils in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open.

Under a ranking system based on defending previously earned points, Medvedev will drop to No. 2 behind Novak Djokovic next week, even though Djokovic didn’t compete here because he’s unvaccinated and wasn’t allowed to enter the United States. But this surely won’t be the only time the 6-foot-6 Russian with the enormous reach and odd form on his groundstrokes holds the top spot in the rankings, and he was philosophical about its imminent end.

“Is it better to be No. 1 for, let’s say, one week in your life or never touch it?” he said. “You know, I think it’s still better to at least touch it.”


Rafael Nadal, who spent 209 weeks of his legendary career at No. 1, has said he’s not concerned about sitting atop the rankings or being judged the greatest of all time even though his longevity and versatility elevate him alongside Djokovic and Roger Federer in any GOAT discussion. At 35, his focus is on nursing his chronically injured left foot, which has led him to skip next week’s event in Miami so he can better prepare for the clay court season and possibly extend his own record to win a 14th French Open title.

Nadal’s strategy has been resoundingly successful, allowing him to defy the calendar while winning a men’s-record 21st Grand Slam singles title and compiling a 17-0 record this year. It’s stunning and it’s not because it’s Nadal, the man of a million comebacks.

“There is no other chance but play very well the next day if I want to keep going,” he said. “If not, I going to go back home.”

Tennis star Naomi Osaka was brought to tears Saturday night by a heckler at Indian Wells. It’s important to understand why she was so upset.

Medvedev’s and Nadal’s paths crossed Monday at Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Medvedev started the day’s action by crumbling when Monfils pressured his forehand and broke away for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory. Nadal, pushed to a third-set tiebreaker in his previous match against up-and-coming American Sebastian Korda, was next on court. Playing under cloudless blue skies, soaking up the heat and the warmth of the crowd’s affection, Nadal came back from a break down early to find his rhythm and grind out a 7-5, 6-3 decision over Daniel Evans.

Nadal, ranked No. 4 in the world and seeded No. 4 here, will face big-serving No. 17 seed Reilly Opelka in the fourth round, on Wednesday. Nadal wasn’t entirely pleased with his effort but was happy with his incremental progress.

“It was very important that I can win these first two matches without playing fantastic, but today was a little bit better than the first day,” Nadal said. “Now I have an opponent in front that makes me play at my highest level. I know I have to do it. Sometimes it is kind of [a] mandatory thing that helps to make that happen.”

Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Daniel Evans at the BNP Paribas Open tournament.
Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Daniel Evans at the BNP Paribas Open tournament on Monday in Indian Wells.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In previous years, Medvedev has reveled in playing the role of villain on the court. At the 2019 U.S. Open, he was booed after he snatched a towel from a ballperson and raised his middle finger toward the chair umpire, and he told the crowds he was drawing energy from their hostility. He was the guy you loved to hate.

Medvedev has cleaned up his act, though he had an outburst Monday. Frustrated after losing the second set and hitting a forehand long to give Monfils a break to open the third set, Medvedev slammed his racket on the ground three times. Boos rained down, followed by a code violation warning. Slivers of carbon from his smashed racket littered the court. Monfils later brushed them away with a towel.

Medvedev did redeem himself with his gracious response to Monfils’ inspired victory. “Second and third set was not that close, to be honest,” Medvedev said. “The third set, you know, it’s tough to talk about turning points or something like this. I just played not really well. Gael, in contrast, played really good.”

Monfils, who peaked at No. 6 in the world in 2016 and now ranks 28th, recorded the second victory of his career over a No. 1-ranked player. The first was over Nadal in 2009.

Asked where this triumph ranked in his career, Monfils seemed surprised it would be considered a milestone moment. “I make it like a good win, you know? But tough,” he said. “I played a great player, of course, one of the best players. I just felt good today. Tactically, I was good. I’m full of confidence, of course, so, you know, I’m just happy to win this match.”

‘The last thing I would ever want to do is minimize remarkable women,’ director Jane Campion said after her remark about the tennis legends backfired.

He was the crowd favorite Monday against Medvedev. Their first set went on serve until Medvedev broke for a 5-4 lead and held for the set; Monfils went up a break in the second set for a 3-1 lead but Medvedev broke back to pull within 3-2. After Medvedev held serve, Monfils won the last three games, surprising Medvedev with an underarm serve on set point.

The momentum shifted when Monfils broke Medvedev’s serve in the first game of the third set. “I felt something was a little bit different,” said Monfils, who will face 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz in the fourth round. “He was a bit off, complaining. He broke his racket, complaining about his forehand a little bit. And, of course, when you have this information, you try to press a little bit more on it and be more aware about it.”

Medvedev will return to No. 1 someday, maybe after the Miami Open. Nadal’s days as No. 1 likely are over, but his greatness remains in his persistence and pursuit of excellence. Enjoy him while you can.