NEW YORK — Daniil Medvedev knew whichever way Sunday’s U.S. Open final turned out, he was going to make it into the history books either either as a footnote in Novak Djokovic’s conquering of the elusive Grand Slam or the man who stopped it from happening.
And when the 25-year old Russian got his opportunity Sunday to determine which one would be his destiny, he did not miss.
After coming heartbreakingly close two years ago at the U.S. Open against Rafael Nadal and then failing miserably in his first shot at Djokovic in a Grand Slam final earlier this year in Australia, Medvedev finally broke through for his first major title, defeating Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Medvedev became the first member of the 20-something generation to defeat one of tennis’ so-called Big Three including Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final. In doing so, he stopped Djokovic’s quest to win all four majors in the same calendar year, something no man had accomplished since Rod Laver in 1969.
After his wins earlier in the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, Djokovic remains stuck on 20 majors, tied with Nadal and Federer for the most in history.
Though Medvedev had not yet beaten Djokovic on the biggest stage, his victory could not be considered a total surprise. Medvedev, in fact, had beaten Djokovic three of the past five times they played, including a come-from-behind win in the 2019 Cincinnati semifinals that served as his slingshot to prominence and eventually the No. 2 ranking.
What Medvedev hadn’t done is beat Djokovic at a Grand Slam, but he vowed to give a better effort this time than in Australia, where he lost a close first set 7-5 and seemed to let down emotionally thereafter.
“If I play Novak, he has 20 Slams, going for the (Grand) Slam, it’s not a must, but I want to do it even more. That’s normal,” Medvedev said after beating Felix Auger-Aliassime in the semifinals. “The more you lose something, the more you want to win it, the more you want to gain it and take it. I lost two finals. I want to win the third one. That’s tennis, we have two players, only one going to win. You never know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to try more than I did the first two times.”
Medvedev made good on that promise against Djokovic, who said after his five-set semifinal win over Alexander Zverev that he was approaching the U.S. Open final as if it was the last match he would ever play.
But perhaps the stakes of the moment finally caught up with him after a drama-filled U.S. Open run in which 20-year old American Jenson Brooksby, Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and Zverev all pushed him physically and emotionally in the previous three rounds.
By the final, Djokovic had already spent 17 hours, 26 minutes on the court in six matches compared to 11 hours, 51 minutes for Medvedev. That difference may have ultimately been decisive.
Though the New York crowd lusted to see history made Sunday, at times to the point of being disrespectful to Medvedev, he controlled the match from the first ball when he broke Djokovic’s serve to begin the match.
That was all Medvedev needed to win the first set, as he completely befuddled the greatest returner of all time with his serve speed and variety. Medvedev, who made a conscious decision to go for big second serves and not allow Djokovic to get into a rhythm on return, lost only three points on his serve in the first set.
In the second set, where Djokovic has made his push throughout the tournament, Medvedev made an early statement by digging out of a 0-40 hole on his first service game. He also denied a break point to Djokovic on his next service game, drawing a racquet smash in frustration. In the very next game, Medvedev broke a still emotional Djokovic and held onto win the second set, putting him in the same hole that Stefanos Tsitsipas had him in the French Open final earlier this year.
But unlike that match, Medvedev didn’t let his foot off the gas even one bit. As he broke Djokovic once early in the third set, and then again for a 4-0 lead, it appeared the stress of the achievement he was attempting and the tough, physical battles he had been through earlier in the tournament had finally taken their toll.
As Medvedev stepped to the line to serve out the title at 5-1, the New York crowd began to get more involved, heckling Medvedev throughout the game and screaming and whistling during his service motion.
Medvedev did not handle it well, double faulting three times to hand one break back to Djokovic. Though the crowd attempted to give him one more shot of adrenaline at 5-4, Djokovic appeared to be weeping into his towel during the changeover.
Medvedev double faulted one more time at 40-15, but finished the match at 40-30 with one more spectacular wide serve that Djokovic couldn’t put into play. It was an appropriate ending to the match as Medvedev fell on his side at the net: He finished with 16 aces and won 80 percent of the points on his first serve.
During the trophy presentation afterwards, an emotional and gracious Djokovic said there was no player than Medvedev who was more deserving of a Grand Slam title. He paid tribute to the New York crowd, which had finally embraced him after years here where his treatment was far less warm than Federer and Nadal.
“In both scenarios, I was visualizing what I would say standing here in front of you guys and I’d like to say that tonight, even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy and I’m the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel very special,” he said.
Medvedev was almost apologetic about disappointing the crowd
“I never said this to anybody but I’ll say it right now,” he said. “For me, you’re the greatest tennis player in history.”