NEW YORK— Watching Daniil Medvedev labor through match after match at this US Open, it seemed that he was playing in borrowed time. This industrious fellow had endured three debilitating weeks in a row on hard courts over the summer, reaching the finals of Washington and Montreal, then winning his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. That exhausting stretch ended only eight days before the start of the Open, leaving Medvedev beat up physically and drained mentally, leading some to believe that the Russian might be vulnerable to an early-round upset in New York.
But, somehow, Medvedev has summoned the inner strength to leave his difficulties behind him, round by round. After a straightforward first-round victory, Medvedev was made to suffer through a string of arduous skirmishes. His next four contests all went to four sets, and he had his contentious moments with audiences who were not enamored of his behavior. And yet, Medvedev kept surprising himself with the layers of his determination.
Before he could even figure out what had transpired and why had had survived when his body was aching and his mind was muddled, Medvedev found himself in the penultimate round of a major for the first time. After upending 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka to earn his semifinal slot, Medvedev took on world No. 78 Grigor Dimitrov in perhaps the most consequential match of his career.
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Having two days off did Medvedev a world of good. Revitalized by that extra day of rest, Medvedev took apart Dimitrov with a proficiency he had lacked all through the heart of the tournament. He crushed the former world No. 3, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-3, by doing what he does best. He stuck assiduously to the basics, giving himself plenty of margin for error, making Dimitrov earn every point, weighing the percentages impeccably. Medvedev is not a player out to entertain fans with flamboyant shotmaking; his mission is to win tennis matches methodically without going out of his comfort zone. He did that beautifully against Dimitrov, staying with the tried and true, refusing to wander from a winning formula, bearing down hard from start to finish.
Dimitrov, buoyed by his victory over Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, realized precisely what he was up against. He was well aware from early on that the long rallies would not be in his favor. The stylish Bulgarian mixed up his one-handed backhand terrifically, driving through it with topspin frequently yet mixing in his gorgeous slice off that side to make Medvedev dig out one low ball after another. That variation was effective, but it was an imperative for Dimitrov to finish points with aggression by either coming forward, or going for winners that were not easy to find.
Both players understood the significance of the first set: Medvedev wanted it, but Dimitrov needed it. Medvedev moved out in front swiftly at 2-0 before Dimitrov captured three games in a row. Dimitrov fought off a break point on his way to 4-3, served a love game for 5-4 and followed with another to reach 6-5. The next game was the one that effectively decided the match. Medvedev led 40-15, but Dimitrov came out of that deficit to reach set point. Medvedev missed his first serve, but Dimitrov was too cautious on his second-serve return. Medvedev pounced, approaching the net to force Dimitrov into a backhand passing shot error.
They went to a tie-break, a tense sequence for both players. Dimitrov led 2-0 but dropped four points in a row. Medvedev double faulted to make it 4-3 but Dimitrov returned the favor. Still, Dimitrov recovered from 3-5 to 5-5, only to make two flagrant unforced errors off the forehand in a row. Medvedev prevailed 7-5 in that crucial tie-break.
The level of play from both players declined considerably in the second set. There were four service breaks in the first five games. Dimitrov stayed with Medvedev until 4-4. He then pushed the industrious Russian to four deuces in the ninth game but never had a game point. Serving at 4-5 to stay in the set, Dimitrov had three game points, but Medvedev was unrelenting. He converted on his first set point, courtesy of another unprovoked mistake from Dimitrov. It was two sets to love for the No. 5 seed. The match was essentially over.
At 1-1 in the third, Medvedev held on from 0-30, broke at 15 in the following game, and held easily again for 4-1. In that stretch he had won 12 of 14 points. Closing it out from there was not that complicated. Although Dimitrov cast aside two match points in the eighth game, Medvedev was unswayed, serving out the match at 15.
The straight-sets win will give Medvedev a boost as he walks on court for his first final at a Grand Slam tournament. He has been the player of summer in the year 2019, win or lose on Sunday.
“I think the confidence means a lot in this case because I do believe in this case he was the better player in the first set," Medvedev said of Dimitrov. "I do think I was kind of lucky to win it. Then the momentum changed completely.
"I think after I was playing better than him in the next two sets. Talking about that first set, this moment in my game, there is something strong that makes me win these crazy sets and crazy matches, which maybe two months ago I would have lost, like to David [Goffin], for example, in Wimbledon.
Looking at his magnificent run through his last four tournaments, Medvedev said, “This summer’s been, I should say, so fast and so long at the same time. Long because I’ve played so many matches. At the same time so fast because I didn’t have a moment to sit down and look back and say, ‘Okay, I’ve done some amazing things. Hopefully I will have some time after Sunday."
On Sunday, Medvedev will meet Rafael Nadal. Their last meeting was one of Medvedev's few losses this summer—a 6-3, 6-0 trouncing in the Montreal final.
“It’s great that I have this experience playing him in the final of a Masters 1000. I know what to expect. I know how to prepare for it.”
"He’s one of the greatest champions in the history of our sport. He’s just a machine, a beast on the court. The energy he’s showing is just amazing. To play him in a Grand Slam final should be, I want to say, a funny thing. It’s not going to be a funny thing. It’s going to be an amazing thing to live.”
No one is every fully prepared for the singular intensity Nadal brings to the arena. But Medvedev is not going to shy away from the ineffable challenge of going head to head against a Spaniard who is as ferocious a competitor as the game has yet seen.
No matter what happens in the last final of the Grand Slam season in 2019, the fans will get good value for their money watching an all-time great go for his 19th major, while his opponent hurls everything he has, in search of a breakthrough triumph that could irrevocably change his life.
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