Daniil Medvedev slammed his racquet to the court and stared at his player box, as if to say: this can’t actually be happening, can it?
You could forgive Medvedev for asking, and for panicking. A few minutes earlier, the 23-year-old Russian had been cruising to a final-round victory over David Goffin at the Western & Southern Open. This wasn’t going to be just any victory, either; it would be his first Masters 1000 title, one that would vault him into the Top 5, cap a sensational month-long run, and make him a strong dark horse pick for the US Open. After losing in the finals the previous two weeks, in Washington, D.C., and Montreal, Medvedev had desperately wanted to avoid going 0 for 3, and after a few shaky moments in the first set against Goffin, he had gradually pulled away in the second.
But one game away from the finish line, at 5-3, Medvedev started to cramp. He had played tennis, he said, for 24 straight days, he was getting nervous, and it was hot. Still, this was not the time to become incapacitated. To make matters worse, a sluggish Goffin suddenly sprung to life at 5-4, went on the attack, and went up 15-40. When Medvedev butchered a drop shot and Goffin passed him, the Russian sent his racquet flying—and put a crack in it.
So what did he do next? Rather than changing to a new stick, Medvedev picked the cracked one up and hit a 123-M.P.H. second serve that Goffin couldn’t return. Then he hit three straight aces to win the match and the tournament. That’s one way to beat cramps, and a heckuva way to win your first Masters 1000.
After losses to Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal in hard-court finals over the past two weeks, Medvedev got on the winning side of the ledger in Cincinnati, beating Goffin for his first Masters title. (Getty Images)
Those three aces were a fitting exclamation point on what was a statement week for Medvedev in Cincinnati. Many players, after reaching two finals in two weeks, might have thrown in the towel and headed to Flushing Meadows early. But Medvedev is nothing if not consistent; from shot to shot and match to match, he’s all about the grind, all about wearing his opponent down and not giving him anything to work with—as ESPN’s Darren Cahill said, “I think he’s missed about three backhands in the last three weeks.” Asked beforehand how he planned to beat the steady Goffin, Medvedev said, essentially, that he was just going to have to be even steadier. When it counted, he was.
But while winning the tournament was an important milestone for Medvedev, his biggest statement came in the semifinals, when he beat Novak Djokovic for the second straight time, in three sets. The last time they played, in Monte Carlo, Djokovic was off his game. This time, though, he was playing well, he won the first set, and he looked motivated to put the younger man back in his place. Not many players can beat the world No. 1 in a situation like that, but Medvedev did. And he did it by going completely against his normal conservative mindset. In the second set, he started hitting all of his second serves as hard, or harder, than his first serves. It was enough to turn the tide.
According to Medvedev, it wasn’t just a matter of throwing caution to the wind; he felt that because Djokovic was returning his second serve so well, he had no choice.
“If, for example, Novak would miss after my normal second serve, I would never do it,” Medvedev said. “But I felt he was all over me, so I felt I had to do it. Even when I was hitting some [double faults], I think I did two or three, zero regrets. Would be the same if I made just normal second serve.”
We’ve learned a lot about Daniil Medvedev in the span of a month. He can be ultra-consistent and risk-averse, but he can also be flexible with his game plan to change course in the middle of a match. He can win day to day and week to week against lower-ranked players, but he can also find another level when he faces the highest-ranked player. He can win Masters titles and make the Top 5. And he can throw his racquet to the ground, pick it up, and hit three straight aces to close out a tournament
But we still have one more thing to find out before the summer is over: Can Medvedev make his first Grand Slam quarterfinal—or semifinal, or final? He’s may be tired, and he may feel the pressure in New York, but after the way he finished in Cincy, anything seems possible for him right now.