Daniil Medvedev’s run at the U.S. Open, the most absorbing of any men’s non-winner in recent memory, could have ended earlier—well before his final Sunday against Rafael Nadal had a chance to transform from old hat to modern classic. As late as the third set, the 23-year-old Russian was straight-up envisioning his loss.
“To be honest, in my mind I was already, ‘Okay, what do I say in the speech? It’s gonna be soon, in 20 minutes,’” he said later, in the actual post-match speech. So much for positive visualization. In fairness, that’s the late-match thought process of most 20-somethings who end up on the wrong side of Rafa at a major. And that’s how close we were to seeing the predominant pattern in men’s majors repeat itself: The Big Three succumb to each other or to injury, and steamroll basically anyone else, especially the youth.
Instead, Medvedev produced batshit tennis for the next two and a half sets, and came tantalizingly close to breaking a cycle that needs to be broken. No men’s player currently under the age of 30 owns a major trophy. This has been true since last year and remains true this morning. Yet late in the fifth set, Medvedev got as close as anyone has, clawing his way back in after going down two breaks. After four hours and 50 minutes, the Russian’s comeback sputtered out, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, and Nadal hoisted his 19th major title. Still, it was hard to watch this five-setter and not feel, at many moments, that it was an important inflection point in the sport’s history. The kids can now put up a serious fight.
There’s also a more pessimistic way to look at it: It’s possible to have one of the greatest hard-court summers in tennis history and still just be almost good enough to beat the real greats. Medvedev was the hottest player on tour coming into the Open, and might still be, having now racked up four consecutive finals and a 16-3 record. He’s emerged as the tour’s resident screwball, and not just because of the umpire coin toss, or the hidden middle-finger, or the post-match trolling, or the comic timing, but also because of what he does on the court. He defies expectation and convention. The Russian’s 6-foot-6 build might suggest a bruiser who cuts rallies short, but he is instead a spidery counterpuncher who entraps foes in a web of flat shots, murderous consistency, and tactical flair. He is content to rally all day, casting funky off-speed balls right back into the middle of the court and denying any rhythm. In a game dominated by heavy top spin, his gawky groundstrokes are some of the flattest anywhere. Spin provides more margin for error and greater pace, but Medvedev eschews it and still finds the precision to plant balls in the corners.
“It’s how I’ve been playing since I was 10, 12,” he told me back in March, when he was flirting with the top 10 but hadn’t yet put it all together. “I don’t know why did I start playing like this. Because usually you come to a coach when you are six, and he tells you you have to come under the ball. So I have no idea how I start playing like this.
“But I think many opponents are struggling with this. Because even if my ball is really flat, I still manage to put it quite strong, and so it’s tough to do anything with it. It’s tough to aggress it, there are not so many players that are able to do it.” Medvedev’s strokes are not conventionally beautiful—good luck working that slow-mo into your luxury watch ad—but their idiosyncrasy is what makes them work.
“He has a very weird game. It’s very sloppy, but a good sloppy,” world No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has lost all four matches against the Russian—and who was famously asked to shut his fuck up—told the tour last month. “He has this completely different way of playing, flat and low, without giving you much angle to work with. It can be very disturbing to play against him. He can make you miss without understanding why you missed.”
Perhaps the greatest point in Medvedev’s favor is that he seems capable of solving all the problems the tour may pose, even on the fly. Thus far he doesn’t seem to suffer any particular matchup problems. Across this breakout summer, he has taken down a diverse set: fellow counterpunchers, power hitters like Karen Khachanov and Stan Wawrinka, all-court players like Grigor Dimitrov and Feliciano Lopez, and whatever you want to call the baseline nightmare of Novak Djokovic. He has even modified his game to survive cramps. Down two sets to Nadal, who smashed him last month in Canada, Medvedev wisely mixed it up by upping the pace, venturing to the net, and fishing for winners (75 to Nadal’s 62).
“I think he had to come out of his comfort zone, to do things he doesn’t usually do,” said the Spaniard after the match, crediting his opponent’s experimentation. Every single pro has a potent plan A, but beating seven opponents in two weeks inevitably requires plans B, C, and D. Perhaps Rafa had in mind points like these two that Medvedev used to wrap up the fourth set:
It’s to Nadal’s credit that he weathered a renewed Medvedev and staved off what would’ve been just his third career loss after going up two sets to none. There’s not much to say that any tennis fan conscious over the last decade hasn’t already seen with their own eyes. As Medvedev put it, Nadal’s level at 33 is still a “big joke.” This was Medvedev operating in full flow, and there was a defender with such outrageous stamina and anticipation that it didn’t really matter:
This grueling victory—with its time violations, its wild self-exhortations—is pure Rafa. Despite the brief thrill of novelty, we’re in the same old arms race between the sport’s greatest. Nadal is just one major back from Federer now. It thrilled me in 2017 when it felt like they were playing with stolen time, and bores me a little now that’s it’s 2019 and they seem to be wallowing in time, diving into it like Scrooge McDuck. The genuine threat of younger players will make it compelling again. The longevity of the Big Three is outrageous, but at this point it’s hard not to be more interested in who’ll get their first than who will get their 21st, especially if they have to beat their idols to do so.