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Daniil Medvedev was stubborn to a fault at the US Open, but still came away a winner
With his win over Alcaraz and his challenge to Djokovic, the Russian reminded us that he remains at the very top of the game.
Published Sep 13, 2023
I don't know. Again, when we play next time it's going to be a different story. I'm not even sure there is anything much to analyze. Daniil Medvedev, after losing to Novak Djokovic in the US Open final—a brutal, three-hour and 15-minute baseline battle that featured a second set lasting 104 minutes
NEW YORK—Medvedev’s words may sound like an oversimplification seasoned with bitterness, but that really isn’t the case. The match clearly hinged on the first of two set points that might have entirely changed the complexion, and possibly the outcome, of the final and prevented Djokovic from equaling Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles title record of 24.
At the time, with Djokovic up a set but trailing 5-6 in the second, Medvedev appeared to have him on the ropes. He had been bombarding Djokovic with laser-like forehands and crisp backhands, the points often consisting of 20- and 30-shot rallies that more often than not ended in his favor. Djokovic was looking gassed, his 36-year old legs appeared to be betraying him.
Eventually, Medvedev powered his way to a set point in 12th game, but after a long rally left him looking at an easy backhand down-the-line pass, he chose instead to go cross-court, laying the ball right onto the face of Djokovic’s racquet. Djokovic hit a winning volley, and cracked a smile of relief.
“Oh, [I have] regrets, for sure,” Medvedev said afterward. “I had two choices and I chose the wrong one.”
As mistakes in a high-stakes situation go, it was a doozy. It helped Djokovic reached the safety of the tiebreaker, which he won. It cleared his path to the final that he claimed, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
“For sure a pity that I didn't win the second set,” said the 27-year old Russian, a former US Open champion who was playing in his fifth Grand Slam final. “I felt like I was all over him. Like I was dominating in a way.”
The remark was neither delusional nor unfair. Although he was plagued by a poor start (Medvedev was broken in the second game of the first set), he was shooting the lights out by the start of the second with a game plan was straight out of crazy town.
Medvedev elected to stand way back in his court and trade punches with the most devastating puncher of them all. That was an endorsement of Medvedev's confidence and consistency, and an interesting reflection of his character as well.
“He’s a stubborn man,” commentator John McEnroe said early in the second set. “Medvedev doesn’t feel like he needs to change.”
Medvedev had good reason to be headstrong. In the semis, he had knocked off boy wonder and defending champion Carlos Alcaraz with a familiar game plan. He sets up shop deep in his own court, knowing that you can’t push a guy back on his heels if he’s already as far back as he can go. Then he invites his opponent to try to hit the ball by him, and the attempts to do so open up angles for Medvedev to exploit. And he has a whole lot of court space at his disposal.
It takes a stubborn—or perhaps it’s masochistic—player to embrace that style. Yet Medvedev’s bullheadedness proved a mixed blessing. His preference for receiving serve from up to 20-feet behind the baseline, from where he delivers stinging, well-placed returns, also begs an opponent to attack the net. Medvedev is fine with that. He likes a target, and picking apart an opponent with passing shots. But Djokovic's volley game is vastly improved. He won 37 of 44 points at the net, often with pure serve-and-volley tennis.
Taking serve from a little closer to the baseline than 12-feet might have thwarted some of those net attacks, but Medvedev did not make that adjustment until too late.
“I should have been less stubborn and gone forward earlier in the match, but I only started doing it a little bit in the third set,” said Medvedev. “But [by then] the match was a different story.”
He’s a stubborn man. John McEnroe on Medvedev
Frustrating as the outcome was for Medvedev, it did remind us that he’s a major force in the game. Although he was seeded No. 3, it was easy to overlook him due to all the hoo-ha about Alcaraz and his recent matches with Djokovic. And then there were all those magical stories about the American men, along with, of course, Coco Gauff. In some ways, Medvedev was the forgotten man of this US Open—until he punched Alcaraz’s ticket.
But Medvedev did not come to New York carrying a big chip on his shoulder. He made that clear in his pre-tournament presser, when he was asked if it stuck in his craw that Djokovic and Alcaraz were sucking up some much of the available oxygen.
“No,” Medvedev replied. “I honestly think it's great. I think it's great for tennis that we have these two guys playing against each other right now. It doesn't irritate me at all.”
Medvedev has become an amiable fixture near the top of the game. He’s a thoughtful, interesting thinker with sharp insights. He was so collegial that in a rare show of respect the moderator at the orchestrated press interviews, who is not given to expressing personal sentiments or opinions, welcomed Medvedev to his final appearance with the words, “Congratulations on a great run and also thank you for being so gracious to this room over the past two weeks. You were just phenomenal. Thank you very much.”
There may not be very much to analyze about the US Open men’s final, but there was a lot to mull over and enjoy about Medvedev, including his bold strategy, and what it portends for the future.