Russian world No. 1s: Daniil Medvedev joins a list of fascinating sporting characters

Daniil Medvedev is the latest Russian tennis player to reach world number one, and he joins some very interesting company.

As of this week, tennis has a brand-new world number one in Daniil Medvedev. That may not seem like a big deal, but these days it is a bit of a rarity.

Indeed, Ashleigh Barty and Novak Djokovic had been cemented at the top of the WTA and ATP rankings respectively for 79 weeks before Medvedev's breakthrough, with Barty's reign going back even further than that.

In terms of just the ATP rankings, Medvedev is only the fifth man to get to world number one in 18 years.

He is not the first Russian to top the tennis singles rankings, though, and if he proves as storied as the four that preceded him then it could be a lot of fun.

Yeygeny Kafelnikov

Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the Australian Open

Year reached world No. 1: 1999

Total weeks at world No. 1: 6

Grand Slam singles titles: 2

The first Russian player to climb to the top of the tennis singles world rankings was a real character.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov - or 'Kalashnikov' as he was known due to his ferocious serve - was a genuine powerhouse in the late 90s.

In many ways it was an unusual time for tennis. The dominant players of the past such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were just starting to lose their grip on the ATP, while the even more dominate 'big three' of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had not yet arrived.

That left a bit of a vacuum at the top that was filled by a precession of good, if not great, players. The likes of Marcelo Rios, Carlos Moya and Pat Rafter all took turns between with Sampras and Agassi still in the mix too.

It was the era of short reigns, and Kafelnikov took his chance. He was already a Grand Slam champion having won the French Open three years before and Australian Open earlier that year.

Kafelnikov is still the last man to win both the singles and doubles title at the same Grand Slam, which he did at Roland Garros in 1996. He also won an Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Sydney games.

After retirement, Kafelnikov competed in the World Series of Poker, although it didn't go well. He also played nine golf tournaments on the European Tour, although he failed to make the cut.

Serious allegations were also made about his integrity too, with him named in a report into betting scandals and rumours abound that was the real reason he quit tennis. He has denied all such allegations.

Marat Safin

Marat Safin in action

Year reached world No. 1: 2000

Total weeks at world No. 1: 6

Grand Slam singles titles: 2

Russia did not have to wait long for their next ATP world number one, with Marat Safin taking the spot 18 months after Kafelnikov. Between the two Russians, a rotation of Sampras, Rafter and Agassi topped the rankings, with the bulk going to the latter.

Winning the 2000 US Open was the catalyst for Safin reaching the top, initially for just two weeks before being dethroned by Roland Garros legend Gustavo Kuerten.

By the end of January, Safin had regained his ranking and held it for a month before losing it to the Brazilian again.

Safin was nowhere near as colourful a character as Kafelnikov but he was a more talented player. He was a real powerhouse baseliner who had terrifying accuracy on both wings.

He also had a fiery temper, after retiring he claimed to have smashed 1055 racquets during his career.

Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon

Year reached world No. 1: 2007

Total weeks at world No.1: 7

Grand Slam singles titles: 5

If you were asked to name a top Russian tennis player, chances are the first name that came into your head would be Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova was one of the top teenage stars in WTA history, winning Wimbledon at the age of just 17 in 2004. It was the first of five major titles.

Her story began long before then, though. As a baby, Sharapova and her family were evacuated from Gomel - a city in the south of modern-day Belarus because it was in the region affected by the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.

She was moved to, first, Siberia, and then to Sochi where she started playing tennis. Whilst there, Sharapova was given her first racquet by a friend of her father's - a man by the name of Aleksandr Kafelnikov, Yevgeny's father.

At the age of six, Sharapova attended a tennis clinic ran by WTA legend Martina Navratilova, who advised her to get our of Russia as quickly as possible if she wanted to reach the top. She set her up with Nick Bollettieri, a Florida-based coach who had worked with Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, and Anna Kournikova. A year later, Sharapova and her father emigrated to the US.

While Sharapova's career was brilliant, the latter stages of her tennis journey were tinged with scandal. A 15-month drugs ban all but finished her at the top of the game and she retired four years later following a long battle with a shoulder injury.

Dinara Safina

Dinara Safina forehand

Year reached world No. 1: 2009

Total weeks at world No. 1: 26

Grand Slam singles titles: 0

While Sharapova is easily the more high-profile and successful of the two Russian WTA world number ones, it is actually Dinara Safina who spent more time at the top of the women's game.

Safina is the little sister of Marat Safin, and her ascent to world number one are not the only similarities she shares with her brother.

She was another true power player from the baseline with a particularly flat backhand that made her tough to manipulate on court. She also shared his fiery temper.

"Being the little sister in such a big tennis family is not an easy situation," Safina admitted. "Maybe that's why it took me longer to develop.

"I wanted to be something by myself, like being a big player by myself. So at the beginning I was putting too much pressure on myself. But then gradually I found myself, and I learned how to do better with that situation."

Unlike her brother, though, Safina could never break her Grand Slam duck, losing in all three finals she contested before a back injury forced her out of the game in 2011.

The sadness is, though, that is always seemed like Safina never quite learned to cope with the pressure of expectation.

Reflecting on her time on top of the rankings in 2020, Safina said: "I thought it was going to be fun, you know?

"You become famous, you become No 1. And everybody is happy. It's actually the opposite! Everybody wants to beat you."

Daniil Medvedev

Daniil Medvedev Australian Open Jan22

Year reached world No. 1: 2022

Total weeks at world No. 1: 1*

Grand Slam singles titles: 1*

*Accurate as of the time of writing

Daniil Medvedev may well be the most long-awaited world number one in tennis history. The game has been waiting what feels like a million years for someone to come along and displace Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Andy Murray achieved it but the effort required was so huge it nearly cost him his entire career. However, while Murray muscled his way in on their era, Medvedev appears to be the man who is ushering in a new one.

That era isn't here quite yet, of course. Indeed, Medvedev has played in four Grand Slam finals - all against either Nadal or Djokovic - and lost three of them.

The point is, though, that Medvedev is reaching major finals consistently now and is very much looking the part.

Medvedev, like seemingly all Russian tennis players, has an interesting story. He was never really hailed as a potential star of the game in the same way contemporaries such as Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas were, although is talent was obvious.

It was only when he deliberately moved to Paris to try to escape a video game addiction and dedicate himself to tennis instead that his talent started to take off, and where it takes him now appears to be solely up to him.

On court, Medvedev is a wonderfully quirky character. His playing style is very unique, using his arms to generate power on his groundstrokes more than his hips, as is conventional.

He also thinks nothing of deliberately winding up a crowd, although he always manages to get them back on side somehow.

Daniil Medvedev is certainly a worthy addition to what is a beautifully fascinating list of sporting characters.

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