Just when the U.S. Open was on the verge of its dream weekend, Daniil Medvedev did perhaps the most Medvedev-like thing and messed it all up.
With a stunning win over Carlos Alcaraz, the reigning champion and 20-year-old wunderkind of the sport, the 27-year-old Medvedev — the game’s happy troll, playful wiseguy and unorthodox baseliner — took a wrench to the popular plans to watch the next chapter of Alcaraz’s mounting generational rivalry with Novak Djokovic.
Instead of a rematch of an epic Alcaraz-Djokovic final in the tuneup to this tournament three weeks ago, which was a rematch of the Wimbledon final in July, which was a rematch of their semifinal showdown at the French Open in June, Sunday will bring a rematch of 2021 U.S. Open final between Medvedev and Djokovic.
On that day, Medvedev, the Russian with the funky strokes, goofy one-liners and dead fish victory celebration, left Djokovic’s quest to become the first man in 50 years to win all four Grad Slam titles in a calendar year in tatters, drubbing the seemingly unbeatable Serbian champion in three sets.
“Novak is always better than the previous time he played,” Medvedev said. “Novak is going to be his best version Sunday, and I have to try to be my best version to beat him.”
Friday night, it was the seemingly unstoppable Alcaraz, the sport’s showstopper of the moment, who endured the head-on impact of a party crash. Medvedev chased after every ball and snapped off one of the most lethal serves in the game throughout the night, matching Alcaraz shot for shot and pushing him to the edge of losing his cool in the second set. Alcaraz nearly threw his racket to the ground but held back at the last moment. Medvedev then weathered Alcaraz’s third set comeback attempt to prevail in four sets over the tournament’s top seed and current world No. 1, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
“I’m going to change my mind,” Alcaraz said after the tense battle. “I’m not mature enough to handle these kinds of matches.”
Alcaraz had his moments, especially early in the third set, when he began dancing across the court and taking control of points by flying into the net to deliver his stinging volleys. He found that extra zip on his ground strokes and had Medvedev hanging his head for the first time all night as Alcaraz halved the lead.
After a bathroom break and a change of clothes, though, Medvedev rediscovered his early form, evolving once more into the human backboard capable of finding the tightest angle to sneak a ball past his most gifted and acrobatic opponent.
That was the trick he pulled off in the marathon sixth game of the fourth set, which lasted nearly 15 minutes. He flung a backhand return onto the Spaniard’s shoelaces as he surged toward the net on his second chance to break Alcaraz’s serve. He looked up at the crowd and waved his fingers in the air, as he had been doing all night, his how-about-some-love-for-me gesture.
Two games later, he had locked up the second victory of the men’s semifinals in which durability won out over style. The fingers went up to the air once more. Alcaraz had beaten him handily twice this year. Not on this day, and then it was time to begin focusing on coming duel with Djokovic, which is like no other test in the sport.
“It’s a mental preparation where you want to go to war,” Medvedev said.
Djokovic is rarely in better form than during a Grand Slam final, especially lately. He is about to play his fourth this year, and has already won two.
“Grand Slams are the biggest goals and objectives that I have,” he said Friday evening. “I set my schedule so that I could perform at my best in these tournaments, and that’s what happened again this year.”
To clinch the final, Djokovic had to get past Ben Shelton, a 20-year-old Floridian thunderbolt. Like Alcaraz, every time Shelton took the court at this U.S. Open, he put on one of its most entertaining shows.
He was a racket-waving highlight reel once more against Djokovic, playing the kind of tennis that could make every American fan pay homage to the spirit of “Big” Bill Tilden or whatever magical force led Shelton to pursue tennis instead of football as he became a teenager.
That second serve of 143 miles per hour, and the frightening forehand the kid ripped across the court. The athleticism he showed floating back to turn solid lobs into fearless, rocking overhands. Those arms rippling out of his sleeveless shirt, and the spirit, too, the way he yelled out an exuberant “yeah!” like a kid on the playground every time he snatched a big point. And that touch on the drop volleys, that land and spin back toward the net.
Unfortunately for Shelton, the scoring system in tennis offers no style points, and in Djokovic he faced not only a 23-time Grand Slam winner and the greatest player of the modern era but the ultimate practitioner of tennis tai chi. For years, and never more than in his latest stretch of dominance, the 36-year-old Djokovic has been turning the power and style of the flashiest and most powerful challengers against them.
Playing in a record 47th Grand Slam semifinal, Djokovic executed the sort of tactical deconstruction of Shelton that has crushed the dreams and good vibes and flash that so many younger players have come at him with before. Without using an ounce more energy than necessary, Djokovic took apart the young man with the sculpted arms, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4), in just over two and a half hours.
For most of the afternoon, he caught up with Shelton’s drop shots from the back of the court like a cheetah chasing his lunch, and picked off the missiles on Shelton’s serve like he was catching butterflies in a field on a late summer afternoon. When it ended with Shelton whipping a forehand into the net, Djokovic even stole Shelton’s much-talked-about post-match celebration — miming a phone at his ear then slamming it down before giving the young lad an icy handshake.
Shelton saw Djokovic’s mimic later on video after he left the court. He doesn’t much care for people telling him how to celebrate, he said.
“I think if you win the match, you deserve to do whatever you want,” said Shelton, who gave Djokovic a glare as he approached the net. “As a kid growing up, I always learned that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so that’s all I have to say about that.”
Djokovic, who spoke about the celebration after Shelton, said with a wry smile, “I just love Ben’s celebration. I thought it was very original, and I copied him.”
Understand now, Djokovic appreciates flashy tennis highlights as much as anyone. Taking the court for the third set holding a nearly insurmountable — against him — two-set lead, he swung just about as hard as he could and watched Shelton feather a drop volley. Djokovic gave the moment the racket clap it deserved. Lovely play, young man. Minutes later he cruised into the court and rolled a passing shot to break Shelton’s serve and spirit once more.
Djokovic did all this in front of a crowd of nearly 24,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium revved up for a high-octane brawl. With thunderstorms in the area, the roof was closed, and every time Shelton put together one of his displays of power and touch and speed and athleticism and came away with the point, the blast of the roars was something that felt like you could reach out and touch.
That was never more true than when Shelton trailed 2-4 in the third set, desperately trying to extend the match. He found himself with a point to break Djokovic’s serve and did not disappoint, drawing Djokovic into a wide forehand that generated a brain-rattling sound. Two games later, amid Djokovic’s only error-strewn and poor-serving lull of the day (it happens), he held a break point and all the good vibes.
And then once more, Djokovic stifled the moment with his trademark efficiency — a 124 m.p.h. serve out wide that Shelton could not handle. Order had been restored.
There was still a little more Shelton and Djokovic for the packed stadium to enjoy. Shelton saved match point and sent the third set to a tiebreaker, then stuck around a bit when he went down, 5-1. But Djokovic had things to do and a rightful place in his 36th Grand Slam final. When he clinched it, it was his turn to bask in the noise — and hang up the phone — just as he expected it would be.
“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,” he said. “I always believe in myself, in my own capabilities, you know, in my skills, in my quality as a tennis player to be able to deliver when it matters.”