US Open 2021: Daniil Medvedev played the spoiler for Novak Djokovic’s Grand Slam dreams, beating the world No. 1 in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in the US Open men’s singles final. The 25-year-old Russian won his maiden Major title with his overwhelming brand of tennis, dropping just one set overall.
In his first defeat at the Grand Slams this year, Djokovic was outserved and beaten at his own game. Here is how Medvedev won the battles within the battle.
Service and return
It was a game of tennis when Djokovic served and shooting practice when Medvedev did. The Russian fired kryptonite bullets at the Superman of returners, hitting the mark consistently.
A lot about his playing style is unorthodox, but Medvedev is old school with his service motion and efficiency. Rather than going lateral across the ball, the racquet’s follow-through is forward through the ball. The flattened serve is further accentuated by his 6’6 frame and high toss, the limited knee-bend and the upper body leaning forward, resulting in an average first-serve speed of 196 kmph.
The placement, too, was clockwork on Sunday. When in doubt or under pressure, from both deuce and ad-court, he went down the T. He won 22 such points, including 9 aces. And when he was feeling it, he would serve it big, out wide from ad-court. He also intermittently followed his first serves with 200+kmph second serves.
“He was hitting his spots very well,” said Djokovic after the match. “If you’re playing someone like Medvedev who hits his spots so well, just aces, gets a lot of free points on his first serve, you’re constantly feeling pressure on your service games.”
Overall, Medvedev fired 16 aces and 22 unreturned serves.
In his previous six matches, Djokovic was able to break his opponent within the first two games of the second set, setting the tone for the remainder of the contest. He had a similar chance with Medvedev down 0-40 in the second game of the second set. The Russian served himself out of trouble with two aces and errors from Djokovic.
The world No. 1 — who called the missed break the “turning point” in the press conference — could convert 1 of 6 breakpoints, the lone break coming late in the third set.
Djokovic meanwhile had a terrible day with his service. Over the five sets against Alexander Zverev in the semifinal, he landed 66 per cent of his first serves. On Sunday, the percentage was 54. It was never going to be enough against Medvedev, whose first-serve return rate was 81 per cent this fortnight, the tournament’s highest.
Baseline and the net
The reason behind Medvedev’s returning success is his deep returning position. He stations himself way behind the baseline to give himself more time. For a tall (but lean and without excess weight) player, his lateral movement is superb. Together, the movement and the time to set up a stroke makes him a brutal counterpuncher. At the US Open, Medvedev won the most points from defensive situations, at 39 per cent.
On Sunday, Medvedev played almost one-third of his shots beyond 2m of the baseline and won 62 per cent of baseline battles.
Djokovic scored a solitary passing winner. In fact, 8 of his winners came from volleys. The ultimate baseliner had to switch up his game. He slowed down his second serve to bring Medvedev forward. And he rushed to the net often.
In his first five matches, Djokovic came to the net at an average of 7.9 times per set. Against Zverev, he came in 8.6 times, winning 35 of those 43 points.
Against Medvedev, he tried it nearly 16 times per set, winning 31 out of 47 net points. He also serve-and-volleyed to disrupt Medvedev’s rhythm. But the bread-and-butter groundstrokes from the baseline were largely ineffective. While his strokes were a lot crisper in the third set, Djokovic couldn’t stay in the points.
Body and mind
With four four-setters in his first five matches and a five-setter semifinal against world No. 4 Zverev, Djokovic came into the final having spent 17 hours and 26 minutes on the court. Medvedev’s on-court time before Sunday was 11 hours and 51 minutes.
“Could be, could be,” Djokovic replied when asked if the long run had any effect on him. “I had more hours on the court spent from Daniil, that’s for sure… I was just below par with my game. My legs were not there. Just energy-wise I felt slow.”
But Djokovic hinted that the mental toll of playing at the highest level and the mounting expectations of, first the Golden, and then Grand Slam caught up to him.
“…also emotionally, very demanding period for me in the last five, six months. Slams and Olympics and playing at home in Belgrade,” he said. “Everything was coming together for me here and kind of accumulating all the emotions that I’ve been through.”
His emotions consistently got the better of him on Sunday.
In the fourth game of the second set, with mishits, unforced errors and wasted break points mounting, a frustrated Djokovic almost swatted the ball into the stands before stopping himself. A couple of points later he smashed his racquet and received a code violation. He also broke down in tears towards the end of the match.
Across the net, Medvedev was calm and uncharacteristically understated.
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