When the US Open was on the cusp of a dream weekend, Daniil Medvedev did perhaps the most Medvedev-like thing and ruined everything.
With a stunning win over Carlos Alcaraz, the current champion and the 20-year-old genius of the sport, Medvedev, the game’s happy-go-lucky dwarf, jovial sage and unorthodox baseline player has taken the key to popular plans to see the next chapter of Alcaraz’s rising generations. Rivalry with Novak Djokovic.
Instead of a rematch of the epic final between Alcaraz and Djokovic in preparation for this tournament three weeks ago, which was a rematch of the Wimbledon final in July, which was a rematch of the French Open semi-final in June, Sunday will bring a rematch of the 2021 US Open final between Medvedev. And Djokovic.
On that day, Medvedev, the 27-year-old Russian of funky jabs, goofy one-liners and dead-fish victory celebrations, abandoned Djokovic’s bid to become the first man in 50 years to win all four Grass Slam titles in a single calendar year. In dire straits, he beat the seemingly unbeatable Serbian champion in three sets.
Medvedev said: “Novak is always better than the last time he played. “Novak will be the best version of himself on Sunday and I have to try to be the best version of myself to beat him.”
On Friday night, it was the seemingly unstoppable Alcaraz, the sport’s current leader, who bore the direct impact of a crash. Medvedev chased down every ball and delivered one of the most dangerous serves of the match all night, leveling Alcaraz shot for shot and pushing him to the brink of losing his composure in the second set. He almost threw his bat on the ground, but retreated at the last moment. The Russian then overcame Alcaraz’s bid for a third-set comeback to prevail in four sets over the tournament’s top seed and current world number one, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
“I’ll change my mind,” Alcaraz said after the tense battle. “I’m not mature enough to deal with matches like this.”
Alcaraz had special moments at the beginning of the third set when he began dancing across the court and controlling points by flying into the net to hit powerful shots. He found that extra pressure on his groundstrokes and had Medvedev hook his head for the first time all night as Alcaraz cut the lead in half.
After a bathroom break and change of clothes, Medvedev rediscovered his early form, developing once again into a human backboard capable of finding the tight angle to sneak the ball past his more talented and acrobatic opponent.
This was the trick he pulled off in the marathon sixth game of the fourth set, which lasted nearly 15 minutes. He threw a backhand kick onto the Spaniard’s shoelaces as he raced toward the net on his second chance to break Alcaraz’s serve. He looked up at the crowd and waved his fingers in the air, as he had done all night, a gesture that spoke of some love for me.
After two matches, he achieved the second victory in the men’s semi-finals, where durability prevailed over style. Fingers rose into the air again. Alcaraz had easily beaten him twice this year. Not on this day, and then it’s time to start focusing on the upcoming showdown with Djokovic, which is unlike any other test in the sport.
“It’s a mental preparation where you want to go to war,” Medvedev said.
Djokovic, who is rarely at his best than during a Grand Slam final, especially recently. He’s about to play his fourth tournament this year, having won two already.
“Grand slams are the biggest goals and objectives that I have,” he said on Friday evening. “I set my schedule so that I can give my best at these tournaments, and that’s what happened again this year.”
To win the final, Djokovic had to get past Ben Shelton, the 20-year-old fluorescent lightning bolt. Like Alcaraz, every time Shelton took the court at the US Open, he delivered one of her most entertaining performances.
He was a highlight reel again against Djokovic, playing the kind of tennis that could make every American fan applaud the spirit of “Big” Bill Tilden or whatever magical force led Shelton to pursue tennis rather than soccer as he became a teenager.
That 143 mph second serve, the fearsome forehand that the kid tore across the court. He showed athleticism as he floated back to turn hard strikes into gritty swinging strikes. Those undulating arms of his sleeveless shirt, and the soul, too, in the way he shouted an impulsive “Yes!” Like a kid on the playground every time he grabs a big point. Which touches dropped volleys, which land and spin back towards the net.
Unfortunately for Shelton, the scoring system in tennis offers no style points, and in Djokovic he faced not only a 23-time Grand Slam winner and the greatest player of the modern era, but the ultimate practitioner of tai chi. For years, and never more so than in his latest stretch of dominance, the 36-year-old Djokovic has been turning the power and style of more flashy and powerful opponents against them.
Playing in his 47th Grand Slam semifinal, Djokovic executed the kind of tactical dismantling of Shilton that crushed the dreams, good feelings and flash that so many young players had brought before him. Without using too much energy, Djokovic beat the young man with sculpted arms 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), in just over two and a half hours.
For most of the afternoon, he would follow Shelton’s shots from the back of the court like a cheetah stalking its lunch, firing missiles at Shelton’s serve as if he were catching butterflies in a field on a summer afternoon. When Shilton ended up hitting a forehand into the net, Djokovic stole Shilton’s much-talked-about post-match celebration – miming the phone to his ear Then slam it before giving the young man an icy handshake.
Shelton later watched Djokovic’s imitation on video after he left the court. He said he doesn’t care much about people telling him how to celebrate.
“I think if you win the match, you deserve to do whatever you want,” said Shelton, who glanced at Djokovic as he approached the net. “As a child, I was always taught that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so that’s all I have to say about that.”
“I just love Ben’s celebration,” Djokovic, who spoke about the celebration after Shelton, said with a wry smile. I thought it was very original, and I copied it.
Now understand that Djokovic appreciates tennis highlights as much as anyone. Taking the court for the third set holding an almost insurmountable two-set lead against him, he swung as hard as he could and watched Shelton hit a volley. Djokovic gave the moment he clapped the racket he deserved. Nice play, young man. Minutes later he took to the court and fired a passing shot to break Shilton’s serve and get him going again.
Djokovic did it all in front of a crowd of nearly 24,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium braced for a high-octane brawl. With thunderstorms in the area, the roof was closed, and every time Shelton put together one of his displays of power, touch, speed and athleticism and came up with that point, the roaring explosion was something that felt like you could reach out and touch.
And that was never truer than when Shelton trailed 4-2 in the third set and desperately tried to extend the match. He found himself with a break point on Djokovic’s serve and he did not disappoint, directing Djokovic into a wide forehand that produced a stunning sound. Two games later, in Djokovic’s only lull of errors and poor serves of the day (that’s what happened), he got a break point and all the good vibes.
Once again, Djokovic throttled the moment with his trademark efficiency – 124mph. Serves on a scale that Shelton couldn’t handle. The system has been restored.
There was still more for Shelton and Djokovic to enjoy the packed court. Shelton saved a match point and sent the third set to a tiebreaker, then stumbled a bit when down 5-1. But Djokovic had things to do and a niche in his 36th Grand Slam final. When he snatched it up, it was his turn to enjoy the noise – and hang up the phone – just as he expected.
“I know how much work, dedication and energy I put into trying to be in this position, so I know I deserve it,” he said. “I always believe in myself, in my abilities, in my skills, in my ability as a tennis player to be able to perform when it matters.”
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