Tennis is the only sport where the loser of a championship has to stand next to the winner and praise them. It’s a contrived performance, and often feels unfair because the loser is judged not only on how courteously they accept a wrenching defeat, but also on how insightful they are in the moments immediately after that defeat. The winner smiles, nods, and mouths the words “thank you,” before returning the loser’s compliments, as decorum demands, but the loser is the one who has to grin and bear it. At its worst, this little routine is painful, especially because some players are about as charismatic as a dingy bathroom mat. At its best, the whole process is perfunctory.
Until last night. After the legendary Rafael Nadal staved off a comeback from 23-year-old Russian Daniil Medvedev in a five-hour thriller that extended, yet again, the supremacy of the Big Three, Medvedev—who last week pulled off an abrupt heel turn to become the troll-villain of the tournament by sarcastically and repeatedly thanking the crowd for cheering against him, saying their energy helped him win—delivered a collection of post-match comments that was sincerely gracious, charmingly self-aware, and truly funny.
After the match ended and before the on-court interviews, the U.S. Open played a montage of all of Nadal’s 19 grand slam wins on the big screen in the stadium. It drove home both that the Spaniard is still dominating at age 33, decades into his career, and the fact that a beanpole who had never before made the final of a grand slam came this close to beating him. The moment wasn’t lost on Medvedev, who congratulated Nadal, calling his 19 major wins “unbelievable” and “outrageous” before setting up his first punchline.
“You know when I was looking on the screen and they were showing number 1, number 2, number 19, I was like, ‘If I would win, what would they show?’”
Medvedev then thanked Nadal for what he had done for the sport, saying “a hundred million kids” want to play tennis because of him, before admitting that he thought the match was over in the third set, hours before it actually finished.
“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 to more laughs. Then he addressed the crowd: “I want to talk about you guys.”
“I know earlier in the tournament I said something kind of in a bad way and now I’m saying it in a good way. It’s because of your energy, guys, I was here in the final. And, I mean, tonight is going to be always in my mind because I played in the biggest court in tennis world and in the third set where, as I say, I was already thinking which speech should I give, you guys were pushing me to prolong the match because you want to see more tennis and because of you guys I was fighting like hell.”
ESPN’s Chris McKendry, milking the topic for all it was worth, told Medvedev he was sure to have a “nice and long relationship with the crowd in New York.”
“Yeah, as I said it’s electric. You were booing me for a reason and I never said it was not, but you guys see that I can also change because I’m a human being, I can make mistakes. And again, thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.”
Medvedev started the tournament as a rising but still mostly unknown talent, transformed into a masterful troll by the fourth round, and then morphed once again into America’s Russian sweetheart by the end of the tournament. I hope Medvedev goes on to win many grand slams, but if not, I’ll settle for more loser’s speeches like that.