Daniil Medvedev, long tortured by clay, is projecting new confidence on the French Open surface

Daniil Medvedev enters the tournament as the world No. 2. JAMES ROSS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Something strange happened to Daniil Medvedev on the way to Roland Garros. He started to believe he can play on clay.

Few top players in recent memory have been as open about their distaste for a surface as Medvedev. The Russian comes to Paris as the world No. 2, but he's almost allergic to the dirt. He had four losses in four visits to Roland Garros before Monday.

"I'm not hiding this -- I don't like clay," he said in Monte Carlo last month, a tournament he ended up not playing in after he tested positive for COVID-19. "Honestly, there's nothing I like on clay. There's always bad bounces, you're dirty after playing. I really don't enjoy playing on clay."

Defeats in his second match in Madrid and first in Rome didn't help his mood, but as he prepared to face the talented Kazakh Alexander Bublik on Monday, Medvedev had at the very least been talking a big game.

"I didn't feel good coming here to Roland Garros [but] I played maybe four hours on the court. I feel amazing," Medvedev said. "I feel happy about life. I feel happy about tennis. First time in two months. So that's just a great feeling."

He likely is happy with his first-round result, a 6-3, 6-3, 7-5 win against Bublik.

On paper, Medvedev should feel at home in Paris.

Together with his parents, the Russian moved to Antibes when he was 18. He is fluent in French and was happy enough to answer a question in the language at the end of his news conference on Friday.

He also has a French coach in Gilles Cervara, who has been integral in his rise to the top of the sport. Medvedev's issues on clay are in stark contrast to his performances on hard courts over the past few years, a surface on which he has won all 10 of his ATP Tour titles, split evenly between indoors and outdoors.

With a big serve, powerful groundstrokes and stamina to match, Medvedev has propelled himself up the rankings, crowning 2020 by winning the ATP Finals and beginning 2021 by reaching his second Grand Slam final at the Australian Open.

In the process, Medvedev became the first man other than Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to be ranked in the top two since 2005, a clear mark of how far he's come.

But clay is a different matter, the surface that put uncertainty into his mind and had him second-guessing himself, unsure whether to try to play his own game or a more traditional clay-court style.

There were signs in Madrid, even though he was eventually beaten by Cristian Garin of Chile, that Medvedev had tried to play more naturally, hitting flat first serves rather than kickers, being more aggressive than simply trying to use angles.

He was beaten by Aslan Karatsev in Rome, but whether it's the warmer weather or something else, he was in good spirits as he readied himself for Bublik, a man he had played just once -- and beaten -- in St. Petersburg in 2016.

"I feel like, I don't know if maybe the balls changed or it's the conditions, because last year we had these Wilson balls which are supposed to suit me, but it was like 5 degrees when I played my match so I had almost no chance to do anything against a great player like [Marton] Fucsovics," he said on Friday. "So far I have been playing amazing. I mean, I didn't feel that it was clay. I was playing like on hard courts.

"Hopefully, I mean, [I] have some expectations. Most important is to play good. [I] have a player that also doesn't like clay, but again, he will like the conditions here. I really like the conditions here so far, and looking forward to make a great tournament, to be honest."

The chances of Medvedev fulfilling his seeding remain slim, but if the warm weather holds, a surprise is possible.

"[The seeding] helps me, even if we don't talk about me making it to the semis yet," he said. "I feel really great with the conditions here and I feel like I can play on hard courts. That's the most important [thing]."