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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

US Open: Flying below radar, Daniil Medvedev could be the giant killer

Amid a variety of dominating storylines, Daniil Medvedev has snuck into the US Open men’s singles final for the second time in his career. And this time was quite unlike the first.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: September 12, 2021 10:17:53 pm
Daniil Medvedev hits a backhand during his US Open semi-final. (USA Today)

The US Open started with Stefanos Tsitsipas’ lengthy bathroom break scandal. The first week of play was highlighted by thrillingly close matches, and the shock Naomi Osaka exit in the third round of the women’s draw. For the first time since 1999, two teenagers will face off for the women’s singles title. And of course, all eyes have been on Novak Djokovic as he aims to become the first male player in 52 years to win all four Majors in a single year.

Amid all these dominating storylines, Daniil Medvedev has snuck into the US Open men’s final for the second time in his career. And this time was quite unlike the first.

Rancour of ’19

Two years ago, the tall Russian kicked-up a storm (angrily snatched a towel) in the early rounds that irked the New York crowd. Neither side hid their displeasure. The audience would boo and jeer the then World No.5. Medvedev would flip the bird at them. When he played that final against Rafael Nadal, he came back from two-sets-to-love down to narrowly lose in the fifth set. That display of tenacity, coupled with some scintillating strokes got him back on the right side of the crowd. And the graceful post-match speech made the Russian a crowd favourite.

This time, the World No.2 and second seed made it to the final without much social media attention.

Under the radar

Earlier in the tournament, American player Frances Tiafoe was asked the reason why so many matches had gone the distance – 18 of the 64 first-round matches ended in the fifth set.

“I definitely think guys are trying extra hard, because there is (no) Roger (Federer), Rafa. I truly believe that,” he said. “I see, like guys are foaming in the mouth, like it’s pretty funny to watch. I’m in the locker room cracking up. Guys are like, there’s a f—— opening, like I got to f—— push.”

None of Medvedev’s matches ended in the deciding set. The 25-year-old quietly went about his business, outplaying his opponents and dropping just one set in the 11 hours 51 minutes he spent on court. But in the way he’s reached the final, without much noise, has been a stark contrast to his run to the final in 2019.

Djokovic again

The World No.1 is just a win away from becoming the first male player since Rod Laver in 1969, and first player since Steffi Graf in 1988, to win all four Majors in a single year. But the Serbian will first have to beat the towering 6-foot-6 Medvedev. In February, Medvedev reached the Australian Open final on the back of a run that saw him beat each of the top 10 players (except Roger Federer who was recovering from surgery at the time). He was seen as the only player capable of putting an end to Djokovic’s dominance over the Melbourne title (the Serb had never lost any of the eight finals he had played in). Djokovic walked away with his ninth title that tournament after a straight-sets win.

Contrasting styles

On paper, it’s certainly poised to be a thrilling match – possibly Medvedev’s first five-setter this US Open.

The Russian’s unorthodox shots are aided by the fast US Open courts. But not because of his own power. Apart from his big serve, Medvedev doesn’t exactly ‘kill the ball’ with each groundstroke but instead has become a master of using the opponent’s pace to redirect with a little oomph from his side. When the time comes though, he can thread the ball down the line or find extraordinary cross-court angles for winners.

And for a tall player, his movement is impressive.

On the other end of the court, though, he will face the game’s fittest player – physically and mentally. Djokovic’s mental strength wins him half his matches against the new generation of players who have never tasted Grand Slam success. His penetrating strokes then take care of the rest.

Djokovic did have to put in some hard yards at the US Open. He won in straight sets just once in the six matches to the final, and the five-set semi-final against Alexander Zverev lasted three hours and 33 minutes.

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