NEW YORK — Daniil Medvedev doesn’t have an immediately identifiable strength, the big stroke that forces a shout. Nevertheless, the strength is there, in a lean-boned, peculiar and bristling player who took down Novak Djokovic with such dispatch in the final of the U.S. Open that it snatched the air from the throats of a crowd roaring to see history made.
Relieved defenders of the record books will focus on Djokovic’s failure to make history by completing the first men’s Grand Slam in 52 years and the fact that his two greatest rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, were absent with injuries. But that denies Medvedev full credit for turning the men’s final Sunday night into such a stunning non-drama, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and sending the game of tennis into a whole new day. He’s Ichabod-skinny at 6-foot-6, with the curled shoulders and mind of a chess player, but Medvedev has wedged his way in among the top players with a shocking insistence, and the next No. 1 may just be here.
Before this tournament ever began, Medvedev was asked about the prospect of stopping Djokovic from winning a Grand Slam and thus breaking his dead heat with Federer and Nadal at 20 majors each.
“Yeah, well, since I’m here, I want to say I’m going to try my best to keep it at 20 for all of them,” Medvedev replied. He added, “I don’t care if it’s in the final against a qualifier or against Novak. I just want to win this tournament.”
To take the measure of Medvedev’s victory, it’s important to describe the quality of the opponent he beat. During Djokovic’s attempt to complete the first Grand Slam since Rod Laver’s in 1969 — a clean sweep of the Australian and French Open titles, along with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — he showed no discernible weakness in winning 27 straight major matches. “Look, I know what my strengths are,” Djokovic said earlier in the week. “I stick to them. I’ve worked over the years to perfect my game so that my game can have literally no flaws.”
All season long, Djokovic seemed impregnable on both sides of the ball, taking everything perfectly on balance, haunches right over heels, and hitting out from his belt. He was the fittest man and the quickest, most fluid mover in the game. It was all but impossible to get him out of position, and he seemed to almost take pleasure in dropping a set only to whip someone in four or five, knowing that he would wear him out in the end. The opponent he beat in five sets in the semifinals, Alexander Zverev, remarked that on the most important points in big matches, there was no opponent more difficult to face than Djokovic. “He plays the best tennis when he needs to,” Zverev said.
When told of the compliment, Djokovic remarked: “Well, you don’t develop that kind of reputation I guess instantly. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of matches won at the biggest stage. … Probably all these big matches that I won, big titles over the years, have kind of built that kind of aura around me that players know there’s a never-die spirit with me, especially when I play Grand Slams. … So I’m glad that my opponents think of me that way. I want them to feel that they are under extreme pressure when I’m facing them on a big stage in the Grand Slams.”
It was all the more stunning, then, when Medvedev was the one who put Djokovic in a state of emergency, right from the start of the final. The last time they had met on a Grand Slam stage, in the final of the Australian, Medvedev had played somewhat tentatively and went down in a straight-sets rout. Medvedev vowed to learn from that occasion — and apparently he did just that. “I feel like I didn’t leave my heart on the court,” he said of that match earlier in the week. This time he swore, “No matter the score, I’m just going to turn up the heat.”
That heat took the form of 125-mph serves that were as dangerous from their placement as their power and handsy groundstrokes that were deceptively deep and varied. As Medvedev said before the tournament began of his overall chess-like tactical style, “I’m thinking, okay, which shot do I do next to make my opponent in trouble?”
Djokovic was clearly in trouble. He dropped serve in the opening game of the match, and he never got out of it. After all of his dominance this season, Djokovic seemed suddenly weaponless and defensive against Medvedev’s ability to consistently brush the lines with big rolling shots. “He came out very determined,” Djokovic said, “and he had a lot of clarity about his tactics and executed it perfectly.”
Before the match began, Medvedev had read the situation rightly: The historical stakes meant that all of the pressure was on Djokovic. “I think it’s more about him, that it affects him,” he said the day before the final. And indeed, Djokovic seemed slightly weighed down. He had 38 unforced errors, which at one point provoked him to smash a racket to shards. “Energy-wise, I felt slow,” Djokovic admitted afterward.
It has been Djokovic’s misfortune to come along in an epoch he has had to occupy with the much-adored Federer and Nadal. He doesn’t have the silkenness of Federer or the coiled power of Nadal; compared to them he is workmanlike and has been respected but not cherished. Affection from the tennis public was one of the few achievements he still pined for. He got it on this night — a most meaningful consolation prize, as the crowd of 25,703 tried to lift him to the Grand Slam with a massive tide of full-throated support.
But Medvedev simply would not permit it. With stroke after stroke, he silenced the roars and utterly reversed what the match was all about. It began as a match with history at stake. By the time it finished, it was all about the future.