There was talk in tennis circles that Daniil Medvedev would be booed as soon as he would make his entrance into the Arthur Ashe stadium for the US Open final. He wasn’t. He was instead given a warm reception.
But if one wanted to know in whose corner the crowd was going be in the match, the roar that greeted Rafael Nadal pretty much eliminated the need for an answer.
Part of the reason for this bias was that Nadal is one of the most loved players of his generation. The other was Medvedev’s gesture to the crowd earlier in the tournament – one he had been trying to make amends for ever since.
It hadn’t exactly worked. The New York crowd can be loud, it can be boisterous, and it knows how to hold a grudge. And once Nadal went up two sets to none, the cheering got louder and louder.
But then in the third set, Medvedev got stuck in. Even as Nadal edged closer to finishing it off in three, the Russian decided he wasn’t going down without a fight. And right there and then, something about that desperation struck a chord with the crowd.
And slowly a chant rose in the Arthur Ashe stadium… ‘Med-ved-ev, Med-ved-ev, Med-ved-ev.’
The sound was not the result of a pre-determined mindset, rather it came despite it. It came from deep within all those watching. It was a natural reaction to what the Russian was attempting to do. Perhaps part of it was wanting value for the money they had paid for tickets, but by the time the third set was settled, they were truly invested.
“To be honest in my mind, I was already thinking, ‘What do I say in the speech, it’s going to be in 20 minutes,” Medvedev later recalled, having fallen two sets behind to Nadal.
The Russian added: “I was like I have to fight for every ball, and it went further but it didn’t go my way. I know earlier in the tournament I said a bad thing, and now it’s a good thing. It’s because of your energy that I’m here in the final. I mean, tonight is going to always be in my mind because I played in the biggest court in the tennis world.
And then he said the words that got the loudest cheer: “You guys were pushing me to prolong this match because you want to see more tennis. Because of you guys, I was fighting like hell.
Medvedev often looks wasted during a match. He looks exhausted. But unlike some of the other Next-Gen players, rarely if ever does he not give his maximum. It might be because he has a game not built on big shots but on a much-simpler sounding quality – consistency.
While the other players can rely on some maverick shot-making, Medvedev, like his hero Nicolay Davydenko, can only rely on hitting the ball deep and in the corner. It isn’t as easy as it sounds but the 23-year-old can do it all day if he has to.
At one point, in rallies that went longer than 9 shots in the final, Medvedev had won 25 of them and Nadal 26. Few players take that approach with Nadal, fewer still (count Novak Djokovic among them) win with it, but Medvedev was even dominating them. At times, it almost seemed like the Spaniard was trying to find a way out of this direct battle.
On the mental front, Medvedev didn’t buckle. He recently praised his mental coach, Francisca Dauzet, for improving his game and concentration. Dauzet, who has been working with him for over a year, often meets with the world No 5 multiple times a week and the foundation now seems to have been laid.
The results of those sessions was evident right through the tournament. It can be difficult to play when the crowd is against you but Medvedev stayed calm and found a way to first use the negative energy and then make the cheers work for him as well.
But perhaps the biggest change is the professionalism that he has now adopted. Everything in his life became about the game – earlier, he would often sleep at 3.00 am before matches but then he gave all that up and focussed on the game and the game alone. The diet changed. The approach changed.
The Medvedev we see today is perhaps a culmination of all these changes coming together. Mentally he seems sorted, physically he is capable of taking on the best in the business. At 23, he can still get better. And the experience of playing Nadal can only help.
But perhaps it was a conversation that the Russian had with his coach Gilles Cervara in 2017 that best describes how far he has come.
“I was talking with him and I said, ‘Why should I take tennis seriously? Why should I do everything professionally? It takes so much dedication, so much mental strength. I feel like when I do it, nothing works’,” Medvedev recalled. “He was laughing at me, saying, ‘Okay, we’ll see. We’ll see. Maybe you’re right’. Now he’s laughing about this saying, ‘Hey Daniil, do you remember what you said? What do you think about this right now’?”
Indeed, as the crowd was chanting his name and cheering him on, one was tempted to ask him the very same question: ‘Daniil… what do you think about this right now?’