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US Open Preview: A calendar-year Grand Slam for Novak Djokovic or Daniil Medvedev's major breakthrough?
The world No. 1 defeated the Russian over three sets to win this year's Australian Open final, and now plays for a men's record 21st major title on Sunday in Queens.
Published Sep 12, 2021
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“I’m going to treat the next match as if it’s the last match of my career,” Novak Djokovic said on Friday as he looked ahead to this final.
Djokovic has never shied away from stating his ambitions publicly, and putting himself on the line, and he wasn’t going to start now. He’s one match from simultaneously reaching two goals that many may have doubted he would ever reach: Winning the first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf’s in 1988, and passing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the all-time record in men’s major titles, with 21. There’s no reason for him to treat this match as anything other than the biggest he has ever played.
As his opponent, Medvedev, has said, this is the way Djokovic likes it. He likes putting the weight of the world on his shoulders, and carrying it across the finish line. In his Roland Garros final against Stefanos Tsitsipas this year, Djokovic only seemed to feel comfortable, and to play anything close to his best, once he was down two sets to love. Medvedev knows that something similar could be in store for him, even if he builds an early lead.
“From one side, for sure he’s going to feel the pressure a little bit about it,” Medvedev said of how Djokovic might react on Sunday. “From the other side, that’s what going to make him be even better in tough moments.”
“I don’t know, let’s say, maybe he’s going to be losing two sets to one or zero and have a break. Maybe some other Slam, some other time, he would not—you know, he always gives his best also, but he would not throw something up. Here we know that he will do everything to try to make it happen.”
As for Medvedev, he’ll be playing his third major final, and he says he’s better prepared mentally than he was in the last two, which he lost to Nadal at the Open in 2019 and to Djokovic at the Australian Open earlier this year. He says now that he was basically happy just to be in the 2019 final, and that he was disappointed with his effort in Australia this year.
“I feel like I didn’t leave my heart on the court in Melbourne,” Medvedev said. “Even if of course I wanted to, there was something not turning up this match.”
There was something else that worked against Medvedev in that final: Djokovic’s game plan. He surprised Medvedev by bringing him to the net, rather than running him side to side. The Russian says he knows the Serb could have different surprises in store this time, but now he knows not to come in with any preconceived notions about what’s going to happen.
“He was playing different than the matches he did before me,” Medvedev said of Djokovic’s strategy in Australia, “and I was kind of not ready for it. So now I am.”
Medvedev has dropped just one set in this tournament, and he had an easy ride through his semifinal with Felix Auger-Aliassime. Djokovic has dropped six sets, and he had a very tough semifinal against Alexander Zverev. So it is conceivable that Djokovic will have a little less spring in his step to start this match, or he may even tire if Medvedev can keep him out there long enough. Djokovic was also grabbing at his back on Friday. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine Djokovic not completing the Grand Slam because he couldn’t hack it physically.
Game-wise, Medvedev has matched up well with Djokovic in the past. He has the consistency to rally with him, the variety to throw him off, and the passing shots to beat him at the net. Medvedev has won three of their eight meetings, and one of those wins was on outdoor hard courts in Cincinnati in 2019. But we could have said the same thing about Zverev before the semifinals. The German had what it took to beat Djokovic in best-of-three at the Olympics, but not in best-of-five at the Open.
Djokovic’s M.O. in New York has been to start slowly, feel his way into a match, gauge what his opponent can do against him and what level he can reach, and then to reach a higher level. That may not be easy against Medvedev, who can throw different looks at his opponent. But Djokovic will also remember that once he had the first set in hand in Melbourne, Medvedev folded. Maybe that will motivate Djokovic to start more quickly in this one.
“Probably all these big matches that I won, big titles over the years, have kind of built that kind of aura around me that players know there’s a never-die spirit with me, especially when I play Grand Slams,” Djokovic said. “They know that until the last shot, you know, things can turn around, which was the case in several occasions throughout my career.
“So I’m glad that my opponents think of me that way. I want them to feel that they are under extreme pressure when I’m facing them on a big stage in Grand Slams.”
Good luck, Daniil.