Daniil Medvedev managed to do something on a tennis court that Carlos Alcaraz never accomplished at Wimbledon – help reduce Novak Djokovic to tears.
It was the 2021 US Open final, and with Medvedev overwhelming him and about to serve for the match, the Serb wept uncontrollably as the Arthur Ashe Stadium began roaring encouragement in a way to which he is unaccustomed.
That night Djokovic buckled not just under the strain of trying to complete the calendar Grand Slam, but also the relentless barrage from this awkward, quirky Russian, whose athletic prowess might be among the most underrated in any sport.
On Friday Medvedev denied Flushing Meadows its dream climax of a repeat Wimbledon final against Alacaraz with a display that he described himself as ’12 out of ten’.
Djokovic’s emotions two years ago – the night after Emma Raducanu’s incredible triumph – partially revealed the neediness that is part of his complex psyche which makes him such a great champion.
Daniil Medvedev gestures towards the crowd after beating Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinal
Novak Djokovic was reduced to tears in the 2021 US Open final but hopes to avenge that result
While another showdown versus Alcaraz is what everyone wanted to see, how the crowd reacts will be only one fascinating aspect of the final that has materialized.
Medvedev is not fussed about playing the pantomime villain here, and after beating the Spaniard again made sarcastic gestures to the stands seeking acclaim. He has a history of doing that at raucous Flushing Meadows, even more so than the often sensitive Djokovic.
There is, of course, a more serious dimension to his relationship with the public at present, given the horrendous events playing out in Ukraine. The studiously neutral Medvedev, a longtime resident of the Cote d’Azur, is the first Russian through to a Major final since the war’s outbreak, and for many tennis’s determination to look the other way remains a matter of shame.
Djokovic supports the idea of Russians and Belarussians playing on and, on the subject of shame, at the Australian Open his father was photographed besides a flag bearing the face of Vladimir Putin.
He will try and become a Grand Slam champion for the 24th time, equaling the mark of Margaret Court, and he would be the oldest singles winner at this venue.
Medvedev understands the reason why Djokovic continues to be the greatest, someone for whom this year’s Wimbledon was not a symbol of decline.
Djokovic enjoyed a favorable run to the final but will nonetheless provide a stern test Sunday
‘He is always better than previous time he plays,’ said the Russian. ‘For example, I beat him in the (2021) US Open final; he beat me in (Paris) Bercy in a great match. Carlos beat him Wimbledon; then Novak beat him in Cincinnati.
‘He is going to be his best version on Sunday, and I have to be the best-ever version of myself if I want to try to beat him.’
Djokovic has had perhaps his easiest ever run to a final, his perennial whipping boy Taylor Fritz the highest ranked opponent en route. On Friday he defeated Ben Shelton, ruthlessly mocking the American’s imaginary telephone celebration by pretending to take a call and then slamming the receiver down.
Medvedev, a superb mover for 6-foot-6 with an unorthodox technique who stands way back in the court, is on a different level to both. But the swagger which temporarily deserted tomorrow’s opponent in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final is back.
‘I think I’m in very good shape, so I like my chances,’ said Djokovic. ‘I probably value these occasions and opportunities to win another Slam more than ten years ago, because then I felt like, ‘Hey, I still have quite a few years ahead of me.’
Carlos Alcaraz was taken down by Medvedev in four sets on Friday night in New York
Medvedev survived a 19-point sixth game in the third set to take a 4-2 lead over his opponent
‘I don’t know how many I have ahead of me now, or I don’t know how many of the years where I play four Slams in the whole season I have in front of me.
‘It probably sounds cocky or arrogant, but I’m not really surprised, because I know how much work and dedication and energy I put into trying to be in this position, so I know that I deserve this. I always believe in myself, in my quality as a tennis player to be able to deliver when it matters.
‘So I’m not really surprised, to be honest with you. Because I feel good. Physically I have been as fit or as prepared, as strong as I have been in years and years. Age is just a number, that phrase is resonating at the moment with me.’
Having refused to take a Covid vaccine he did not play this event a year ago, as he was banned from entering the country. In 2020 he was disqualified for hitting a line judge with a ball. Now he stands on the brink of moving two Grand Slam titles ahead of Rafael Nadal, which would surely cement a decisive lead.