For Daniil Medvedev, nothing but a Slam title will do

NEW YORK — There was barely a smile from Daniil Medvedev after he advanced to the US Open final with a 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 win on Friday. There was a hug at the net with his opponent Felix Auger-Aliassime, a wave to the crowd, then a tiny glimpse of a satisfied expression.

Two years ago, Medvedev was excited to have made it to the final at the tournament, but these days, the No. 2-ranked player expects such results. Simply getting to the last day of competition is no longer enough.

Now, as he enters his third major title match, he knows he’s capable of more.

“I want to win everything I play, but I was kind of the underdog [in 2019],” Medvedev said on Friday. “Let’s be honest, I was already happy being in the final. It was first great breakthrough. I just won a Masters [title], which was already huge, I was in the final. So everything was a positive, which helped me to play good. I was not feeling like it’s a must to win…

“The more you lose something, the more you want to win it, the more you want to gain it and take it. I lost two finals. I want to win the third one. That’s tennis, we have two players, only one [is] going to win. You never know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to try more than I did the first two times.”

In between Novak Djokovic’s quest for the Calendar Slam, his record-breaking 21st major title and the rise of the teenagers, including women’s finalists Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu, Medvedev has largely flown under the radar at the 2021 US Open. But now, Medvedev, 25, is back on the sport’s biggest stage with a chance to carve his own place in history. On Sunday afternoon, he’ll take on top-ranked Djokovic with a chance to play spoiler and win his first major title.

“I have the experience of two finals of Slams that can help me,” Medvedev said. “Doesn’t mean it will, but can help me. The only thing I can say is all that I have left, I’m going to throw it out [there] on Sunday.”

Medvedev was one the breakout stars of the 2019 US Open. He arrived in New York having won the title in Cincinnati, and having reached the final in Montreal and Washington, D.C. — and his momentum didn’t slow. He steamrolled through the draw — recording wins over three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka and former world No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov — and embraced a heel-like persona starting in the third round after he flashed the middle finger following a code violation. He was promptly booed by the crowd, and he basked in their loud animosity all the way until the final. But he won over the crowd in the title match that lasted nearly five hours against Rafael Nadal. The two traded points, and then sets, until Nadal finally emerged victorious.

But even in the loss, Medvedev made an impression and secured his spot as a player to watch.

Once again showing his dominance on hardcourt, Medvedev made the final earlier this year at the Australian Open. Unlike his match against Nadal, this one was nowhere near as competitive, and he lost to Djokovic, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, in less than two hours. Still Djokovic knew Medvedev was the real deal, and he told the Melbourne crowd as much after the match.

“On court, he’s definitely one of the toughest players I have ever faced in my life,” Djokovic said before turning to Medvedev. “It’s a matter of time till you hold a Grand Slam.”

Since that last meeting, Medvedev took over the world No. 2 ranking and became the second man outside of the “Big Four” (Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray) since 2005 to hold the spot. He won the Canadian Open last month for his fourth Masters 1000-level title, and has comfortably cruised into Sunday’s final.

He’s dropped just one set during the tournament and has remained calm and composed, nary a middle finger gesture to be found. There have been no notable interactions with fans, nor dramatic comebacks. Just a man taking care of business. He said he was grateful for the lack of controversy this time around, and said his experience thus far has been “just smooth.”

No one has won more matches on hardcourts than he has (146) since the start of the 2018 season, and this marks his tour-leading 17th final on the surface. But he’s never beaten Djokovic in a best-of-five, and knows he will yet again be considered a longshot to win entering the match.

After his victory on Friday, he told the crowd he was going to go back to his hotel and would relax by ordering some dinner from Uber Eats and watching Djokovic’s match against Alexander Zverev. Medvedev had revealed earlier in the week he had been watching all of Djokovic’s matches during his off days — not because he was preparing for their eventual clash, he said, but simply because, “I enjoy watching tennis.”

But his television viewing habits could prove beneficial, particularly if he was taking notes on Friday night. Djokovic needed five sets, and a deep dig into his arsenal of weapons, to avoid the upset against Zverev. At times, he even looked beatable.

Five men have lost their first three major finals during the Open Era. While it’s an esteemed group of players — Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic, Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray and Dominic Thiem — it’s not a list Medvedev wants to join. He said he didn’t give his match against Djokovic his all at the Australian Open, and vowed not to do that again on Sunday.

“It’s going to be more interesting in terms of tactic what I’m going to prepare,” Medvedev said. “I think the thing that I understand, I always give my best, but I feel like I didn’t leave my heart on the court in Melbourne. Even if of course I wanted to, there was something not turning up this match.

“That’s what I’m going to try to do on Arthur Ashe with hopefully 100% of fans. No matter the score, I’m just going to turn up the heat.”

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