As Alex de Minaur assessed the various strengths of Daniil Medvedev prior to their US Open fourth round clash, he described the Russian as a grandmaster of chess. In the infancy of a match resplendent for the quality of shotmaking, the Australian seemed a move ahead of the former champion, who was ailing in the heat on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
But the setting of the sun on a stifling day in New York revived Medvedev as the former champion at Flushing Meadows switched the match on its head from midway through the second set, before going on to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 and book a place in the quarter-finals.
Perhaps this is not a surprise, for Medvedev had done his best work after midnight in his two prior victories here this year against Chris O’Connell and Sebastian Baez. Pale-skinned and angular, one could imagine the 2021 US Open champion as a vampire preying on the ambitions of young players such as De Minaur, who fancied his chances.
The Australian had won their two prior outings at Masters level in Paris last October and in Toronto last month. He had also been in blistering form in the first three rounds. And he started with a rush, breaking the serve of the world No 3 twice in an opening set that indicated the Sydneysider might just be on the cusp of a significant moment in his career.
Instead the Russian lifted, which should be no surprise given his love of a challenge. He raised the level of his serve, starving De Minaur of opportunities to break a delivery struck with precision and pace. And he began to press his rival in return games as well.
De Minaur, who sits on the cusp of a top 10 breakthrough, was good enough to deny the No 3 seed when he first raised a challenge at 2-2 in the second set. It was inspired tennis. When not serving-and-volleying with success, he was clubbing first serves and thumping forehand winners. One ace was struck quicker than 200kph.
That is medium-pace when compared to the serving of American quarter-finalist Ben Shelton, for example. But for de Minaur, it was a further sign of his progression as a player.
When the Australian first struck a blow at major level as a 17-year-old at Melbourne Park, he was diminutive in stature. He is hardly a tank now, but has clearly strengthened his frame. But Medvedev is what the Australian branded a supreme defender. The 27-year-old has dangly arms and spindly legs, but they propel him around the court at great speed.
And his work ethic is legendary, which De Minaur is aware of. A few years back, before Medvedev was a fixture deep in the second week of grand slam tournaments, a group of Australian coaches watched a training session in amazement.
The US Open was due to start in a couple of days. But Medvedev was zipping between lines on the indoor tennis courts in Queens completing a series of running drills. His coaches explained that while the tournament about to begin was important, they were building a tank for the future capable of surviving the toughest of challenges.
De Minaur served so well for almost two sets. But at 5-4 in the second set, it deserted him. And Medvedev, having worked so hard to level the match, was positioned to take the queen. The older, more experienced and ultimately tougher man had won the chess match.
“It was very tough,” Medvedev said. “The conditions were probably the most brutal we have ever played. At one moment, I thought I was not going to [be able to] play till the end.
“And then I looked at him, and he is one of the best guys around physically, and he was not moving as well either, so I thought I would fight to the end. During the match, I was feeling better and better, so hopefully it is the same on Wednesday.”
Unlike last week, Medvedev was heading back into Manhattan well before midnight, instead of stepping out to start another service game, which should refresh him further. In his fourth US Open quarter-final, he will face his great friend Andrey Rublev, who has reached this stage nine times at grand slam level without progressing further.
De Minaur conceded he had hit the wall after a busy summer that included runs to finals at Queens, in Los Cabos and also in Toronto.
“That’s 100% what happened and it’s probably the first time in my career that kind of fitness let me down” he said. “It’s not something that happens. I back myself every day of the year.
“I think there was no lack of confidence to beat him. I knew what I had to do to hurt him and … I showed it until my legs went away. And then suddenly I had to try and scramble, finding different ways of playing, and you can’t do that against a player of the calibre of Daniil.”
The world No 13’s next stage will be in Manchester, where he will lead Australia in the Davis Cup from midway through the month. After Davis Cup duties, he will return to the tour midway through the swing in China with a view towards breaking into the top 10 and also qualifying for the ATP Tour finals in Turin.