Daniil Medvedev knew that if he beat Novak Djokovic on Sunday, he’d be cast as a villain in the eyes of many. Certainly that would be the case for Djokovic and his many fans, who were looking forward to their hero capturing his 21st major and conquering the Grand Slam.

Medvedev acknowledged the possibility of serving as the foil separating Djokovic from history. “If I can make this, I’ll probably be in the history books a little bit somewhere like not letting him do this,” the Russian said. “But I don’t really care about it.”

When Djokovic tied Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 majors by winning his third of the year, at Wimbledon, fans spoiled by this era in men’s tennis could have imagined a season-ending showdown between the Serb and either of those two greats. A head-to-head for history.

But with injuries to both Federer and Nadal, who both appear to be inching toward the finish lines of their illustrious careers much faster than Djokovic, that was not to be.

“I don’t feel the change of the energy,” said Medvedev. “I don’t care if Roger or Rafa is here. I want to win the tournament. It’s going to be tougher if they were here, and of course it would be tougher if they would be 30 years old. But I just want to do my best, so I don’t care if they are here or not.”

He did his best. He won the tournament by thrashing Djokovic in straight sets. And with that win in the final, Daniil Medvedev claimed his own place in history.

Medvedev was never just some also-ran. He is No. 2 in the world—the first player outside the so-called Big Four to rise that high since 2005. Playing in his third major final, Medvedev has paid his dues and was ready and determined to ascend the next, final step. To do it, he conquered a player seeking something that hadn’t been achieved in men’s tennis in 52 years.

The Russian knows a little something about playing the villain. In Flushing Meadows back in 2019, Medvedev appeared to delight in the role. In his third-round match against the Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, Medvedev deliberately taunted a night crowd on Armstrong that had been gleefully booing him ever since he petulantly snatched a towel from a ball kid and appeared to give fans the finger. “I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight, I won because of you,” Medvedev said in his post-match interview as jeers rained down on him. “The more you do this, the more I will win for you guys.”

Medvedev’s surge to the 2019 US Open final and dramatic clawback from two sets down against Nadal, forcing the Spaniard to battle for nearly five hours, earned Nadal’s respect and won back the New York crowd. Medvedev had completed an unlikely resurrection, transforming into a likeable and sympathetic figure, whereas only days earlier he was the heel everyone loved to hate.

The villain of Round 3 turned out to be a character Medvedev was briefly playing rather than a character trait. In reality, the Russian is a complex, curious, funny, smart and unique personality.

He can be a colorful interview. “My wife always believes in me and tells me I’m going to be Top 10, winning Slams. Probably like every good wife should do,” he told ESPN after his semifinal win. “If she tells you that you’re going to be nobody, there is some problem,” he said with a grin.

The Russian is an unlikely villain.

“I want to say sorry for you, the fans, and Novak because we all know what he was going for today,” he said on court after winning the championship. “Today maybe you were a little bit more for Novak, but it’s completely understandable.”

The last player to interrupt a quest for a Grand Slam was an even more unlikely spoiler: the Italian journeywoman Roberta Vinci, who stopped Serena Williams’s 2015 bid for a Grand Slam two matches shy. Vinci, 5-foot-4 and ranked 43rd in the world, employed an unusual bag of backhand slices and off-kilter paces to throw Williams off her game and dislodge her from her goal.

Medvedev, of course, is nowhere near Vinci’s stature. He already had two previous Slam finals under his belt, and is 6-foot-6 with a huge serve and other weapons.

His game is unorthodox and sneaky, even quirky. The willowy, rangy Russian can camp out at the backstop on return of serve, but with his incredible speed—he scampers like a small retriever—he can race forward to cover the inevitable drop shot. He can lull you to sleep with a half-dozen loopy balls before suddenly cracking a flat missile with a crosscourt forehand or two-fister down the line. And he can serve opponents off the court.

Medvedev’s unique skill set poses match-up problems. He keeps opponents guessing.

He just doesn’t look much like a world beater.

Medvedev says he has had to learn to adapt his game to beat the best. “When I just came on tour, I was super aggressive but just kept hitting bumps because I didn’t know how to do anything else. Step-by-step with experience, I started to be really defensive. But I understood that just being defensive is not enough, so now what I’m trying to do is turn defense into offense.”

That, of course, is also Djokovic’s calling card. The Russian beat Djokovic at his own game.

Medvedev made little secret of his own ambitions, even if most of the talk on the men’s side all tournament long was about Djokovic and history. “He has 20 slams, going for the [Grand] Slam. [A win is] not a must, but I want to do it even more. That’s normal. The more you lose something, the more you want to win it, the more you want to gain it and take it. I lost two finals. I want to win the third one.”

After his semifinal victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime, Medvedev told ESPN: “The biggest thing for me is experience. I’m not the kind of guy who’s capable of doing everything on the first try.”

On a third try, he was. On Sunday afternoon, Medvedev got everything right.

Source: Neil Schlecht