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.
“You could feel that he was just at the height of his abilities on every shot,” Djokovic said. “He had a lot of clarity what he needs to do tactically and he executed it perfectly. And on the other hand, I was just below par. My legs were not there. I was trying. I did my best. Just one of these days where unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.”
where he lost a close first set 7-5 and seemed to let down emotionally thereafter.
For Djokovic, who vowed 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, it seemed that both the stakes of the moment and the demands on his body finally caught up to him.
After being pushed physically and emotionally in the previous three rounds by 20-year old American Jenson Brooksby, Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and Zverev, Djokovic had already spent 17 hours, 26 minutes on the court in six matches by the final compared to 11 hours, 51 minutes for Medvedev. That difference may have ultimately been decisive.
“Energy-wise, I felt slow,” Djokovic said.
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Though the New York crowd lusted to see history made Sunday, at times to the point of being disrespectful to Medvedev, he had total control of both his game and his opponent from the very first ball when he broke Djokovic’s serve to begin the match.
That tiny opening was all Medvedev needed to win the first set, as he completely befuddled the greatest returner of all time with his serve speed, placement 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.
“After the final in Australia we had the feeling that Daniil didn’t have his fire that can help your game be much stronger, especially against a player like Novak,” Medvedev’s coach, Gilles Cervara, said. “He had to change for sure to play this final at another level.”
In the second set, where Djokovic had made his push throughout the tournament, Medvedev sent an early statement that he would not back down 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.
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“My feeling on the court was not as good as the one that I had in Paris,” Djokovic said. “There was some opening there — one shot here and there, I was very close, and who knows the trajectory of the match if you make them.
But those moments never materialized, and 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.