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Daniil Medvedev knew the exact formula to pull off the ultimate challenge - beating Novak Djokovic

Daniil Medvedev with the 2021 US Open trophy
Daniil Medvedev with the 2021 US Open trophy
Musab Abid
EXPERT COLUMNIST

Is Daniil Medvedev a charming entertainer, a boring metronome, or an irreverent villain?

In his short career so far, the Russian has donned all three hats with the effortlessness of a master juggler. And as a neutral observer you are never quite sure how to react to The Daniil Show.

Part of you wants to admire his mad-scientist-like genius. Part of you wants to doze off in the face of his endless counterpunching. And part of you wants to outrage at his occasionally disrespectful tantrums.

But while being all of those things, Daniil Medvedev is now also fully self-aware. He has come to understand there's only a finite number of ways to get the job done, and he now tries everything in his power to arrive at the right formula.

The burning desire for results is probably what made him eschew the last part of his multiple personalities on Sunday. In the US Open final against Novak Djokovic, the 25-year-old was smart and he was also boring, but he was never the villain. It's no coincidence that the evening ended with him taking home his maiden Slam title, at the expense of the veritable GOAT.

Admittedly, Medvedev antagonizing everyone around him hasn't always been a recipe for disaster. At the 2019 US Open he infamously gave the crowd the finger during one of his early-round matches. He then proceeded to gloat in their faces every time he got a chance to speak, with his line "I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight, I won because of you" standing out in particular. Yet he still reached the final of the tournament, and almost won it.

In the final of the 2021 edition on Sunday, Medvedev had the chance to slip into the role of the antagonist once again. Djokovic was surprisingly receiving a lion's share of the crowd support right from the start, so just a stray obscenity from the Russian could've been all it took to make it an all-out brawl.

But Medvedev controlled himself, because he knew just what it would take to beat Djokovic at such a stage. Sure, the 25-year-old has shown the ability to trick the opponent and manipulate the mood of the arena in the past. But no such tricks would work against the Serb in an Arthur Ashe stadium filled with pro-Djokovic hooligans.

To take down Djokovic - and that too in a hostile environment - you have to be methodical and disciplined; you have to be perfect. Any deviation from the straight path would have ended up as fodder for Djokovic's all-court mastery, particularly given the circumstances.

So Medvedev stuck to his pre-decided strategy. He served like his life depended on it, even sending down 120+ mph second serves on occasion. And he returned with nearly robotic precision, forcing Djokovic to take a few too many risks to finish points.

"When it's against Novak, (deciding tactics) took probably 30 minutes," Medvedev said after the match. "Why? Because we played already, like, maybe seven matches before this one, maybe even more. Every match was different just because he's so good that every match is different. He changes his tactics, he changes his approach."
"I had a clear plan in my mind what I have to do in which moment," he added. "Of course, it would depend a lot on him because, again, sometimes you have to be aggressive, sometimes defensive. I had a clear plan which did seem to work."

The plan certainly did work, until Medvedev got to 5-2 in the third set. That's when the crowd really made its presence felt, cheering every mistake the Russian made and even trying to disrupt him during points. Medvedev was clearly rattled by it all, coughing up a slew of double faults to get broken for the first time in the match. He then played a nervy return game to let Djokovic get to 4-5, and within sniffing distance of leveling the set.

It's a mark of just how incredible the Serb's ability to come back from the dead is that at that point many observers felt Medvedev would lose. He was up two sets and a break, serving for the match, and yet he didn't look safe.

"It was definitely tough," Medvedev said later when asked what was going through his mind during that tumultuous final frame. "I knew that the only thing I can do is focus. Never know what would happen if it would be 5-All, if I would start to get crazy or whatever. It didn't happen, so again we cannot talk about it."
"Yeah, I definitely made some double-faults because of it," he added. "That makes it even more sweet that finally I managed to pass a first serve on the third match point."

That last line sums up Daniil Medvedev's uniqueness perfectly. The Russian was ready to concede that he was affected by the crowd, and he was also fully aware of the stature of the man he was up against (Medvedev called Djokovic the GOAT at the trophy presentation). But in the most important moment of the match he willed himself over the finish line, and then openly admitted to having derived a perverse satisfaction out of silencing his detractors.

Medvedev's willingness to speak his mind is what makes him such a compelling personality overall, if you set aside his mechanical baseline counterpunching. And it's the intention behind it all that stands out too.

Medvedev doesn't say what he does because he wants people to like him. Instead, he uses cordial and occasionally outrageous words just to make sure you are fully engaged.

Whenever I've asked Medvedev a question at a press conference, I've got the impression that he was very interested in striking up a conversation. The 25-year-old has a way of speaking that suggests he is personally invested in the subject you're referring to, which is why even his seemingly mundane answers tend to stay in your mind.

That's a good quality to have if you want to carve a niche for yourself in the Big 3 era.

Daniil Medvedev's game has evolved just as much as his mentality

Novak Djokovic (L) and Daniil Medvedev (R)
Novak Djokovic (L) and Daniil Medvedev (R)

On the surface, it looks as though Daniil Medvedev's character arc has come full circle with his US Open win. It is tempting to say the Russian has achieved redemption for his past sins, and that too at the same place where he first became such a divisive figure.

But the redemption that Medvedev really needed was in his game rather than in his image. Despite being widely considered the second-best hardcourter in the world since 2019, the Russian had repeatedly failed to deliver the goods when it mattered the most.

At the 2020 Australian Open he lost an eminently winnable match to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round. And his subsequent straight-sets losses to Dominic Thiem (US Open 2020) and Novak Djokovic (Australian Open 2021) were even tougher to explain.

How does the world's second-best hardcourter twice fail to even take a set off his opponent at a hardcourt event?

The answer largely lay in Medvedev's forehand. For all his impressive height and ability to flatten his groundstrokes, the 25-year-old just couldn't finish points effectively enough. That particularly came to the fore in pressure situations - serving to stay in the first set against Djokovic at Melbourne, and serving for both the second and third sets against Thiem at New York.

It often seemed like Medvedev was more interested in using tricks and sly maneuvers to outlast his opponents, than embrace a ruthless but practical approach to batter them into submission.

Medvedev's coach Gilles Cervara, while speaking to the press after the final, attributed his charge's previous failures to a lack of 'fire'. He was probably talking about his mindset, and Medvedev certainly did show more self-belief than usual in the match against Djokovic.

But what he also did was turn up the heat on his forehand when given the opportunity to.

The Russian's forehand was as effective on Sunday as it has ever been, particularly off short balls. That was most starkly evident in his service games, as he repeatedly pulled the trigger on any weak return that came his way.

In the return games, Medvedev was a little more conservative because Djokovic was being fairly offensive-minded too. But that only worked to Medvedev's advantage, as the Serb wasn't nearly as sharp as he needed to be with his groundstrokes.

In effect, there were two versions of Daniil Medvedev on display in the match. There was the servebot version in half of the games, who blasted his shots into the corners without hesitation. And there was the counterpuncher version on the return, who was willing to put one extra ball back in play no matter what it took.

Medvedev's game has inherent limitations due to his unorthodox technique, and his forehand will probably never be a huge weapon. But by getting out of his comfort zone and taking the attack to Djokovic, the 25-year-old showed that he doesn't always need to try and outsmart his opponent.

Djokovic on his part was hugely complimentary of Medvedev after the match, despite his obvious and painful disappointment at missing out on the Calendar Slam.

"I mean, he was amazing," the Serb said. "Just congratulate him, full credit from his mentality, his approach, his game, everything. He absolutely was the better player and deserved to win, no doubt about it."

Novak Djokovic has proven this year that he is a champion beyond compare, and with his words on Sunday he also reminded us just how gracious he is as a person too. Djokovic's respect for others is one of the things that makes him so close to invincible; he always tries to produce his best because he always considers his opponents to be great players.

To beat someone like Djokovic takes immense courage and conviction, along with a generous amount of skill, endurance and persistence. That Medvedev managed to showcase all of those things on Sunday is as good an indication as any of just how much the Big 3 have enriched the game.

There are many (including yours truly) who find the current era of single-player dominance on the ATP tour a tad dull, especially when compared with the wildly unpredictable WTA tour running simultaneously. But then you look at a player like Medvedev, and you are reminded that unparalleled excellence tends to lift everything around it.

The Russian has evolved immeasurably as a player, to the extent that he can now claim to have stared down one of the Big 3 and lived to tell the tale. And he has reached this stage while retaining his entertainment quotient - check the hilarious 'dead fish' celebration and the reactions to it - as well as his villainous streak (as seen in his recent shenanigans at the Canada Masters).

Daniil Medvedev is not perfect by any means. But by being such a funky concoction that makes you react differently on different days, he is proving to be an important cog in the transition from the Big 3 era to the new age.

And if he's going to be winning Slams in the process, then why not celebrate his wonderful weirdness, one dead fish at a time?

Edited by Musab Abid
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