Novak Djokovic wasn’t at his best. In fact, he was far from it.
It was perhaps the most important match of his life. He had said he was going to treat it like it was the last match of his career. But on the night, the man who had won 27 Grand Slam matches this year simply didn’t turn up. Daniil Medvedev shattered his dream of a Calendar Slam with a stunning straight-sets victory to win his first Major at the US Open.
Djokovic’s biggest moment came in the second game of the second set. Medvedev had just breezed through the opening set but all of a sudden, he faced three break points. The Serb had won his four previous matches after dropping the first set and it seemed he was about to kickstart another all-too-familiar comeback.
Medvedev had to respond immediately and he did so by pulling out a harmless drop shot mid-rally. Djokovic picked it early and got to it well on time but the shot that followed served a fair reflection of his night as a whole. Instead of getting the break with a straightforward put-away, he dabbed the ball back awkwardly to allow Medvedev a forehand winner down the line.
Medvedev went on to hold serve and two games later, Djokovic squandered two more break points before smashing his racquet to bits and receiving a warning from the chair umpire.
Djokovic was aiming to become the first man in 52 years, since Rod Laver in 1969, to win the Calendar Grand Slam. A victory in the US Open final on Sunday would have even handed him his 21st Major title, taking him a step above his great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
All eyes were on him. But that player who had crossed every hurdle this year, who had outfought and outthought every opponent, who had been a symbol of excellence, was nowhere to be found.
Djokovic seemed off-balance all the way through. In the first set, he hit a backhand slice into the net and slammed his racquet on his right leg multiple times, berating it for not moving into the right position. He seemed hurried. He made just 54% of first serves, converted just one out of six break points, and made more unforced errors than Medvedev. Overall, there was a strange sense of urgency in his game. He seemed keen to kill points quickly and that resolve to simply stay in the rallies and outlast the opponent was missing.
“I was just below par with my game,” said Djokovic in the post-match press conference. “My legs were not there. I was trying. I did my best. Yeah, I made a lot of unforced errors. I didn’t have – no serve really... I was below par with everything, to be honest. So just one of these days where unfortunately, yeah, wasn’t meant to be.”
Djokovic missing out on the historic feat of winning all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year will likely be the big talking point going forward, and rightly so. His extraordinary run in 2021 deserves every bit of celebration, with his on-court tears before and after the end of the match only adding to the emotionally charged moment.
However, what shouldn’t be lost in all of this is the near flawless performance by Medvedev. If Djokovic’s missed opportunity will be remembered, so should Medvedev’s sheer brilliance.
Medvedev was chasing his first Grand Slam title and was up against one of the greatest to play the sport. He was featuring in his third Major final, after finishing runner-up at the Australian Open earlier in the year and at Flushing Meadows in 2019, and had sparse support in the crowd. The Arthur Ashe Stadium was firmly in Djokovic’s corner, with the Serb later reflecting at length on how that moved him.
But Medvedev was a man on a mission. He had spoken earlier about wanting to be the one who stops Djokovic’s run and he went on to do that in stunning fashion.
One of his biggest weapons on the night was his serve. He lost just three points on serve in the first set. He hit 16 aces in the match and had a phenomenal win percentage of 81 on first serve. Such was his confidence with the shot that he used the two-first-serves-strategy for the most part. Djokovic was clearly struggling to find any sort of rhythm and Medvedev’s quick, aggressive service games only compounded his problems.
As legendary as Djokovic’s ability in baseline exchanges is, it was Medvedev who held firm in the rallies as well. The Russian attacked his opponent’s backhand relentlessly and showed remarkable restraint in pulling the trigger. He built points patiently and even when searching for angles, he didn’t attempt to paint the lines often.
What was most impressive, though, was how Medvedev won the big moments. When Djokovic threatened a resurgence in the early stages of the second set, or when he was down break points (before his second-last service game where he double-faulted twice to get broken), the 25-year-old never panicked.
Djokovic was eyeing history, there was a partisan crowd in attendance, he was desperate to win his first Major, but Medvedev didn’t let the pressure get to him. He kept earning cheap points on serve, found winners from the back of the court when he needed them, made Djokovic hit uncomfortable volleys, and was assured in his movement throughout.
“It was definitely tough,” said Medvedev in his post-match press conference. “I knew I have to focus on myself, on what I have to do to win the match. This is my first Grand Slam. I don’t know how I’m going to feel if I win a second one or third one. This is my first one, so I’m really happy. Means a lot to me.”
The US Open men’s singles trophy may have exchanged hands numerous times over the past decade and a half but there’s no denying that Medvedev’s victory holds great promise. He dropped just one set through the tournament and has been one of the best hard court players on tour over the past few years.
As Djokovic suggested at the end of the match on Sunday, it won’t be a surprise if Medvedev reaches the top again in the future.
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