NEW YORK—On the bus from Manhattan to Flushing Meadows on Tuesday, a couple across the aisle from me was perusing the day’s schedule.
“Oh, there’s Medvedev,” the wife said, pointing to the newly reviled Russian’s name and time slot in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Oh, right,” the husband said, laughing. “I have to boo him.”
An hour or so later, when Medvedev walked into Ashe for his quarterfinal with Stan Wawrinka, he was greeted, as expected, by a robust chorus of boos—maybe my bus mate’s was among them. The 23-year-old had played the role of “the villain” in his last two matches, goading the night-time crowds in Louis Armstrong Stadium into raining their collective disdain down on him—in pro wrestling, it’s known as a “heel turn.” But on Tuesday I wondered: How many people in Ashe had any idea why they were supposed to be booing Medvedev? While we may occasionally wish tennis were more like pro wrestling, it never is for long, even in New York.
The competition in tennis is too real, and, as he proved again in his 7-6 (6), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Wawrinka, Medvedev is too good at it to be known as a heel. In Wawrinka, he was facing someone who had just played his best tennis in two years to beat No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, in front of a roaring night-session audience. But right from the opening game on Tuesday, Medvedev took all of the wind out of Wawrinka’s sails. Where Djokovic had given Wawrinka a steady diet of cleanly struck balls in his strike zone, Medvedev gave him…nothing. Or, as Medvedev’s coach, Gilles Cervara, put it afterward, he beat Wawrinka with “no game.”
“His ball seems easy to play, but it’s really, really tough,” Cervera said of Medvedev.
Photos from Anita Aguilar
Wawrinka’s last match was at night, this one was in the day—and the difference between them was, yes, night and day. Medvedev rarely gave him the same shot twice in a row. On some forehands, he snapped up and sent a floating ball high over the net. On others, he flattened his stroke out and hit a ball that penetrated. With his backhand, he hit bullets crosscourt, side-spinning balls down the line, and teasingly loopy drop shots. But mostly he just kept his backhand flat and low and gave Wawrinka nothing to work with.
It was a remarkably effective combination. Against Djokovic, Wawrinka ripped everything that came his way without hesitation; against Medvedev, he was uncertain, and it led to errors. How many times do you see Wawrinka pass up the chance to tattoo a mid-court ground stroke and try a drop shot instead? That’s what he had been reduced to in the fourth set, and it wasn’t working, either. Wawrinka and Medvedev finished with roughly the same number of winners on Tuesday; in this matchup, that’s not a stat that’s going to work in the Swiss’ favor.
“I didn’t start well. I never really find the right rhythm I wanted to find between staying back and being offensive,” Wawrinka said. “He’s playing a different ball. He’s really solid from the baseline. Playing really flat backhand.”
According to Medvedev, his tactics were a matter of necessity. He pulled his left quadriceps in the first game of the match, and he had it taped later in the first set. Medvedev even said he contemplated retiring. But rather than call it quits right away, he did the only thing he could do: disrupt.
“I knew I have to play without rhythm,” Medvedev said. “Some games I have to not run to relax my leg. I was hitting full power, then suddenly I was doing drop shots in the middle.”
Maybe Medvedev should always injure himself in the first game. Not only did it help him diversify his game, it kept him relaxed.
“I didn’t have any emotions because in my mind, I’m losing the match because of my leg,” he said. “Then when it was 5-3 in the second, I was like, ‘OK, now I’m starting to get stressed because I’m close to being up 2-0 in sets. I’m definitely not going to retire when it’s 2-0 up for me.’”
Medvedev went through one bad stretch at end of the first set, when he gave back an early break and let Wawrinka reach set point at 6-5 in the first-set tiebreaker. Would Medvevev have retired if he had lost that point? We’ll never know, because that’s when he came up with the most important shot of the day. When Wawrinka slammed down a first serve wide into the ad court, it looked as if the set were his. But just as the pro-Stan crowd was rising to its feet, Medvedev stretched his 6’6” frame as far as it would go and stabbed the return back. It landed too deep for Wawrinka to put away; instead, he missed a forehand wide. Medvedev, as he did all day, took advantage of the opportunity and pounded home a service winner for the set.
This was a performance that even a New York fan could appreciate. When “the villain” won, the cheers drowned out the boos, and rightfully so. Medvedev has had his legitimately ugly moments in the past. He was defaulted from a Challenger in 2016 when he was heard accusing an African-American umpire of being “friends” with his opponent, Donald Young, who is also African-American. And in his third-round match here, he swiped a towel away from a ball boy, tossed his racquet in the direction of the chair umpire, and was caught raising his middle finger. But even as Medvedev has courted the villain role, he has owned up to his bad behavior.
“I got what I deserved,” Medvedev said of the boos. “Usually I’m not like this, as I was in the third-round match. I’m not proud of it. I’m working to be better. Hopefully I can show the bright side of myself.”
Has the villain been retired? Has Medvedev reversed his heel turn? Or will the fans here boo again if he faces the ultimate good guy, Roger Federer, in the semis? Only one thing is for sure: Medvedev the player—the brilliant and entertaining player—is still alive, and he doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.
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