Column: Daniil Medvedev wins U.S. Open title, thwarting Novak Djokovic’s bid at history
Novak Djokovic’s quest to win all four men’s Grand Slam singles titles in a calendar year was ended by the crushing weight of history and a brilliant game plan devised by a fresher, younger opponent who respects Djokovic’s greatness but no longer has reason to be intimidated by it.
Daniil Medvedev, a lanky, 25-year-old Russian, had been knocking on the door of winning a Slam tournament singles championship the last two years. Rafael Nadal stopped him in the 2019 U.S. Open final after Medvedev had rallied from two sets down to force a fifth set, and Djokovic blew him out in straight sets in this year’s Australian Open final, in which Medvedev won only nine games. Medvedev had done well to reach No. 2 in the world and had lost only one set here, to qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp in the quarterfinals, but he still had to climb that last and most difficult step.
On Sunday, with Djokovic depleted emotionally and physically after going five sets in the semifinals Friday and losing the first set for the fifth straight match, Medvedev efficiently exploited the 34-year-old Serb’s vulnerabilities and entered the Slam event winners’ club with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 shocker.
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Medvedev served well, firing 16 aces. Djokovic’s mental and physical fitness are legendary, but Medvedev won 22 of the 41 rallies that went between five and eight shots and won 18 of the 25 rallies that went nine shots or longer.
Above all, Medvedev had a fire he had never felt before. Djokovic couldn’t quench it.
“You could feel that he was just at highest of his abilities in every shot. He had a lot of clarity what he needs to do tactically. He has executed it perfectly,” Djokovic said. “The other hand, I was just below par with my game. My legs were not there. I was trying. I did my best. Yeah, I made a lot of unforced errors. I didn’t have, no serve, really. If you’re playing someone like Medvedev who hits his spots so well, just aces, gets a lot of free points on his first serve, you’re constantly feeling pressure on your service games.
“I was below par with everything, to be honest. So just one of these days where unfortunately, yeah, wasn’t meant to be.”
Medvedev apologized to fans who had come to Arthur Ashe Stadium to see Djokovic become the first man to earn a calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 and win a men’s-record 21st Grand Slam singles title. Medvedev, who called Djokovic the greatest player in the game’s history, genuinely meant it.
But Medvedev also knows this could be the launching point for him to win many more Slam tournament titles. The next generation is no longer waiting in the wings. “It’s already current, established,” Djokovic said. And Medvedev is its leader.
“I do feel sorry for Novak because I cannot imagine what he feels. I don’t know this feeling. It definitely makes it sweeter,” Medvedev said. “I mean, a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam. I would win it against Botic in the final, probably I would be same happy.
“For the confidence and for my future career, knowing that I beat somebody who was 27-0 in a year in Grand Slams, I lost to him in Australia, he was going for huge history, and knowing that I managed to stop him, it definitely makes it sweeter and brings me confidence for what is to come on hard courts so far, but let’s see about other surfaces.”
Medvedev had a strong start Sunday, breaking Djokovic’s serve in the first game of the first set. Medvedev clinched the set on an ace, the eighth of his 16 in the match.
Djokovic had three break points in the second game of the second set and two more in the fourth game but couldn’t cash in, missed opportunities he later lamented. “Some break points there, opening service games of Medvedev in the second set. There was some love-40. Just one shot here and there ... I was very close,” said Djokovic, who received a warning for racket abuse in the fourth game after he hit a forehand long and reacted by slamming his racket to the ground three times.
“Who knows the trajectory of the match if you would make a break in the second early? With the crowd, with the support, probably I would feel maybe different.”
And maybe not. “But he did so well. I mean, he was amazing,” Djokovic said. “Just congratulate him, full credit for his mentality, his approach, his game, everything. He absolutely was the better player and deserved to win, no doubt about it.”
Medvedev broke for 3-2 in the second set and served out the set. In the third, he broke Djokovic’s serve in the first game and sprinted away. He doubled-faulted on his first championship point, at 5-2, and Djokovic earned his only break of the match in the eighth game to close Medvedev’s margin to 5-3 and then held for 5-4.
The crowd of 25,703 cheered for one last stand by Djokovic, but after one more double fault on championship point, Medvedev prevailed when Djokovic netted a forehand.
Djokovic’s eyes had begun to tear up as defeat became inevitable for him late in the third set, and he was still emotional later. But he considered himself a winner in at least one sense.
“Of course, part of me is very sad. It’s a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line. But on the other hand, I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York,” he said. “The crowd made me feel very special. They pleasantly surprised me. I did not know, I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I’ll remember forever. They touched my heart, honestly.”
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Medvedev said he plans to party hearty. He earned it.
“Everything that happens for the first time is special. When I won my first junior tournament, it meant a lot to me. When I won my first future [tournament], I was happy. I think when you repeat something, there is a little bit different emotions unless you make history,” he said.
“Now it’s a bit — I don’t know if euphoria is a good word, but a lot of happiness. That’s my first Grand Slam [title]. I don’t know how I’m going to feel if I win a second one or third one. That’s my first one, so I’m really happy. Means a lot to me.”
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