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Med Man: Daniil Medvedev makes history of his own in stunning US Open final defeat of Novak Djokovic
It took a one-of-a-kind player to stop a Grand Slam coronation at the last possible moment.
Published Sep 13, 2021
WATCH: Medvedev becomes just third Russian man to win a Grand Slam singles title
NEW YORK—Daniil Medvedev made good on the promise he made on Friday to “throw everything, leave everything” he had onto the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Sunday’s US Open final. His mission: to win his first Grand Slam title in three finals, even though that road led through Novak Djokovic, who was on a quest of his own. A win would make Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world, the first man in 52 years to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam.
This time, the stuff Medvedev threw and left out there was sufficient. He’s a Grand Slam champion now, while Djokovic’s dream of slamming grandly evaporated as inexorably as the beads of perspiration that the competitors sprayed onto the court. Medvedev produced his most effective day as a server when he most needed it (the damage was already done when he faltered momentarily near the end). He stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out with the game’s most punishing puncher and came out ahead, winning in two hours and 16 minutes, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
“Amazing,” Djokovic said of the 25-year old Russian’s performance in a brief runner-up speech designed, it seemed, to make sure the emotions that had him trembling and in tears moments earlier would not get to him. “Amazing match.”
Medvedev understood the crushing disappointment Djokovic felt in those moments, and did his best to soften the pain for his opponent in his own remarks,
“I’m sorry for you fans and Novak,” Medvedev told some 22,000 spectators who clearly had come out to see history made—and let it be known with their tireless support for Djokovic. “As we all know what he was going for today, I just want to say anyway that what you accomplished this year, and throughout your years—I never said this to anybody, but I will say it to you today—you are the greatest tennis player in the history.”
This final needed no additional historical meaning, yet even before it began there were resonances that it would transcend the particulars of the moment. Djokovic is 34 years old, his fellow members of tennis’s Big Three, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are 40 and 35, respectively. Both missed this US Open due to injury. Had Djokovic been successful in his historic crusade, it probably would stand as the high-water mark of the trio’s domination.
Medvedev’s victory doesn’t wipe out that idea; it isn’t an all or nothing proposition. But Djokovic’s 11th-hour failure to complete the Grand Slam—his once-in-a-career chance, he admitted the other day—also points to an inevitable transition. Slowly, the Big Three have been floating back down to earth. This result attests to it. This year, and this event, might have been a generational leave taking, a sunset slam.
“Of course they are going to take over,” Djokovic said after the match, of the generation that includes Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Matteo Berrettini. He believes that the transition to a new generation is already underway, although it won’t stop him from continuing his drive to become the most successful men’s Grand Slam singles champion ever. He’s currently tied with Federer and Nadal with 20 majors apiece, but he’s also the youngest of the three, the healthiest, and best—by far—all-around performer.
“Daniil, I don't know if he's No. 1 now, or is soon-to-be No. 1,” Djokovic said, “Look, it's normal. The older guys are still hanging on. We're still trying to shine the light on the tennis world as much as we possibly can. But the new generation, if you want to call them this way, is not anyone new. It's already established.”
Medvedev might strike the casual fan as an odd candidate to occupy the osprey nest in the rankings in Djokovic’s wake. The Serbian star has the look and bearing of a classic tennis champion; Medvedev, though, isn’t straight of central casting—unless you’re looking for someone to portray a graduate student in bio-engineering.
Medvedev is slender (but oh how much power he makes!), with already thinning and receding hair. He’s no Federer when it comes to style or grooming, and even less like the silky smooth champion in tennis substance.
The way Medvedev presents, you could more easily take him for the crafty champion of a local club rather than a Grand Slam tournament. He awaits serve standing straight up, holding the racquet close to his chest and upward. When he hits his bolo forehand, he sometimes holds his right arm awkwardly bent at the elbow and close to his body, the way an awkward amateur might.
When it comes to serving, players typically go through their routine with the diligence of airline pilots running pre-flight instrument check. The elaborate set-up, the interminable ball bounce, the long pause before the toss—these are anathema to Medvedev. He just walks to the serving notch, bounces the ball once or twice, or not at all, and quickly throws it up and whacks it in a continuous, speedy and violent motion.
This rough-hewn game earns him no style points, but plenty of the scoreboard kind. That slovenly (there’s no better word) serve largely carried him to the win Sunday. Granted, Djokovic was feeling the pressure and unable to find his A-game for lengthy periods in the match. Still, Medvedev smacked 16 aces, or more than five per set (by contrast, Djokovic tagged just six in total). Medvedev won an outstanding 58 percent of his second-serve points against the best returner in tennis.
“He was hitting his spots very well,” Djokovic acknowledged. “Not just aces.”
Tactically and strategically, Medvedev is also an original. He will stand as far as 20 or more feet behind the baseline to return service, a tactic that confuses opponents but cannot always be implemented due the lack of space. That was a more commonly occurring problem back when Medvedev was fighting his way up through the minor leagues, and it made him feel, in his own words, “discriminated against.”
Medvedev’s generational peers—Zverev, Tsitsipas and Berrettini, who could be described as tennis’ Little Three—are more conventional players. Zverev made a great leap forward with his game last year at this event, which was held without fans allowed on site and under strict health protocols due to the pandemic. He came within two points of claiming the title, but lost to Dominic Thiem.
Zverev, ranked No. 4, really made his bones as a major contender with his come-from-behind win over Djokovic at the Tokyo Olympics, where the 24-year old German went on to earn the gold medal—an achievement that he, and many other top pros—put right up there with winning a Grand Slam title. Zverev has a smooth game free of eccentricities. He hasn’t always used his powerful serve and 6’6” height to best advantage, at least partially because he’s so mobile. He can beat most players from the baseline.
For some time in 2019 and 2020, though, Zverev had trouble keeping that atomic serve under control. His penchant for double-faulting became a significant weakness. He seems to have put all that behind him.
“Once you lose your serve and you're down a break against Zverev, it's really tough to come back,” Djokovic said after his narrow, five-set win over the German star after the semifinals. “He's serving so precise, so strong.”
Slowly, the Big Three have been floating back down to earth. This result attests to it. This year, and this event, might have been a generational leave taking, a sunset slam.
Then there’s Tsitsipas, 23 years old and ranked No. 3. He almost stopped all the fuss about a Grand Slam in its tracks at the French Open, where he took the first two sets of the final against Djokovic. But, with legs fresher than he had tonight, Djokovic roared back to win.
Tsitsipas has had some hard luck in majors, but lately he seemed to be turning that around. Although he has loads of charisma, he squandered much of the goodwill he’d built up as a figure of sympathy with overly long bathroom breaks that led to charges of gamesmanship, and accusations that he and his team routinely violate coaching rules during matches. It wouldn’t be so bad for him if many of his peers, led by Zverev, believe that the criticisms are accurate.
Tsitsipas was ushered out of this tournament 18-year old sensation Carlos Alcaraz, leaving him with a lot to think about, or perhaps simply to re-think.
Berrettini has been gradually wedging himself into this variegated, but on Sunday Medvedev established himself as the clear leader of that pack. He’s the first one to win a major title. He can also claim distinction as the only player in history to have stopped a Grand Slam from happening at the very last opportunity. That’s a distinction that may last forever. Medvedev expects to dine out on it for some time, and believes it will do wonders for his confidence and future in the game.
“I beat somebody who was 27-0 in a year in Grand Slams. I lost to him in Australia, and he was going for huge history [here], and knowing that I managed to stop him,” he said. “It definitely makes it sweeter and brings me confidence for what is to come on hard courts. Let's see about other surfaces.”
He’s already sounding like a man with plans.