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Chess on Wheels: Can Daniil Medvedev become a tennis grandmaster?
Friday's semifinal was a learning experience for Felix Auger-Aliassime, and a template for what the Russian will need to do on Sunday.
Published Sep 11, 2021
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NEW YORK—Felix Auger-Aliassime slumped into his chair in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He toweled his face, his chest veritably heaving as he gulped the stale air created by the 20,000 spectators. He sat expressionless, as if he could hide the disappointment—perhaps even incredulity—he felt, trying for long moments to still his breathing.
Just minutes earlier on this sunshot Friday afternoon, the lanky Canadian stepped up to serve with a 5-3 lead, primed to level his US Open semifinal with No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev at a set apiece. Flush with confidence and resolve, he built a 40-15 lead—two set points. Whereupon Medvedev, the pro most often said to play tennis as if it were chess, reeled off a series of guileful but explosive baseline combinations that ultimately earned him the service break.
The blow was so severe, so unexpected, so devastating that Auger-Aliassime was unable to recover. He tried to regroup, but it was no use. Medvedev ran off the next two games easily to lock down the second set. The 21-year-old’s game, so promising early on, lost its luster and sting. Errors and double faults streamed from his racket the rest of the way as he lost in two hours and four minutes, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2.
“It was a strange match a little bit, in the second set at least,” Medvedev said in his on-court interview. “Everybody thought it would be one set each.”
Thinking back to the set points in that critical game—FAA actually had three—Medvedev said he was just hoping that Auger-Aliassime wouldn’t wipe the line with an ace. It would thwart Medvedev’s resolve to “make him play.”
That last phrase is Medved-ese for setting up shop 20 feet behind the baseline and jerking an opponent around the court, daring his rival to try for a winning placement or—yummy, yummy—a net attack, returning even the toughest of serves with menace, and forcing his foe to hit that mythic “one more shot.”
Of course, when he’s serving, the tiger happily changes his stripes. Medvedev likes to blow the ball by his foes, or render their returns feeble and defensive.
“Some guys, they serve harder,” Auger-Aliassime said in his post-match damage assessment. “I thought he served amazing. His precision is crazy at times. And he served well when he needed to, which is something we don’t pay enough attention to.”
Thanks to that serve, Medvedev won 81 percent (48 of 59) of his first-serve points and 52 percent (14 of 27) of his second deliveries. He tagged 12 aces, two more than FAA, who relies more on serving prowess. The defensive genius of Medvedev was manifest in his 5-for-5 break-point conversion figure; Auger-Aliassime managed just one successful break point conversion in three tries.
The match was a template for what Medvedev will need to do in the final, although against more seasoned and versatile opposition.
This year I didn't have the stories, and that's a good thing. I have the experience of two finals of Slams that can help me. Doesn't mean it will, but it can help me. Daniil Medvedev
Toni Nadal, who has been coaching Auger-Aliassime this year, knew full well what his protege was getting into. He didn’t train and coach his nephew Rafael without developing a good understanding of what it takes to beat a tough, resilient baseliner whose game has some of the same earmarks as Rafa’s.
Thus, Auger-Aliassime resolved to “accept the rally.” He knew that, “Against a player like Medvedev, you don't really have room for mistakes, room for losing your focus, which I did at the end of the second [set]. He took advantage of it and I didn't get another chance after that.”
This was another of those matches that shows why best-of-five set tennis is not just longer than the three-set version of the game played on the ATP tour. Beating a player like Medvedev—or Nadal, or Djokovic—in best of five is a big ask for an offensive-minded player like Auger-Aliassime. At times, the contrast between these two semifinalists was glaring.
Auger-Aliassime is of the Arthur Ashe-Stan Smith-Pete Sampras school of tennis. He weighs just a shade under 200 lbs. and stands 6’4”. But with his upright, almost military bearing and flexible, long limbs, he seems even bigger. His game is powerful and well-rounded, designed to allow him to back up a booming serve (his fastest on the day was 129 m.p.h.) with aggressive net play.
It’s difficult for anyone, especially a youngster playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal, to pursue that style of play at the requisite, high level over five sets. It’s tough enough to do in a three-setter.
“I had to play my best level and even better for a chance to win today,” Auger-Aliassime allowed. “In the first set, and until 5-3, 5-4 in second, I was playing as good as I could.”
To put the result in perspective—and to get some idea of the work that lies ahead for FAA, if he hopes to contend for majors—remember that in the 2019 US Open final, first-time Grand Slam finalist Medvedev battled back after losing the first two sets to force the master of “make him play” tennis, Nadal, to go five sets to secure his win.
Medvedev is as worthy a finalist as this tournament has ever produced. He has been money in Gotham, where he has compiled an outstanding 19-4 record—his most wins at any major. Medvedev leads all players on the ATP Tour since 2018 in hard-court titles (11), finals (16) and wins (145). In a 20-match winning streak spanning late 2020 and early 2021, Medvedev logged 12 wins over eight different Top 10 opponents. And he’s still just 25 years old.
Like all his peers, Medvedev is thrilled to have the spectators back in Ashe after last year’s tournament was played with no spectators allowed due to the Covid pandemic. The Russian star was beaten in last year’s Silent Semis by Dominic Thiem, who went on to win the title.
“I would say the biggest change is that without the crowd, it’s probably a bit tougher to change the match,” Medvedev said earlier this week. “If you're not playing Roger or Rafa or Novak, many of the matches which you're going to be losing, the crowd's going to go for you, because they want a longer match, they want it to go to three (sic) sets. They're going to pump you up. It is the same for the other guy. When there's no crowd, it's only you who can try to change it.”
That’s an interesting idea that might come into play on Sunday. Although just how and who will benefit is difficult to predict. Medvedev has had an interesting, mixed history with the New York crowd. The fans were decidedly on the side of FAA in Friday’s match, but that was predictable. This Open has been lit up by youth.
Reviewing the 2019 US Open that launched his career as a serious Grand Slam contender, Medvedev recalled how cramping almost forced him to quit during his second-round match. Then there was that famous dustup with the crowd during his third-round win, along with a quadriceps tear that almost forced him to pull out of the event after his quarterfinal win over Stan Wawrinka.
It was an eventful fortnight for Medvedev, who is happy that he will carry less baggage into this year’s final.
“This year I didn't have the stories, and that's a good thing,” he said. “I have the experience of two finals of Slams (Medvedev lost the Australian Open final to Djokovic this year) that can help me. Doesn't mean it will, but it can help me.”
“The only thing I can say is all what I have left, I'm going to throw it out on Sunday.”
And that just might be enough.