As early as the first set of their Australian Open quarterfinal, Daniil Medvedev copied the guttural grunt of his opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime. It was unmissable. Typically when Medvedev hits the ball, he’s usually either silent or whinging in more nasal register, but there he was, locked in a five-set showdown, mimicking that big-cat growl. Was he trying to get in his opponent’s head? “To be honest, in life, I think that’s my character, like when I talk to a person a lot, so when I have a best friend or wife, they get nervous because I start to be like them in many things and I do it not on purpose,” Medvedev said after his resounding 6-7(4), 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-5, 6-4 win. “I think definitely I didn’t do this on purpose, like not zero percent. I think it’s just, yeah, he was putting a lot of intensity in his grunt, and when I started to like really fight for my life, I was like, ‘I’m going to grunt also.’ I didn’t think about this, but now when I rethink, it’s true, that some points I was like after the point, ‘Did I just grunt kind of like him?'”
Medvedev became the top-seeded player in the tournament after Novak Djokovic got deported from Australia, and may well be the best hard-court player on tour by a considerable margin, but he’s not above some mind games. In his fourth-round match, he’d shouted, “It’s so boring,” and sheepishly admitted afterwards that he’d been trying to confuse his opponent, Maxime Cressy: “Maybe he’ll be saying ‘What the hell is Medvedev saying’ and maybe, I don’t know, he’ll miss some shots.”
The stakes were even higher on Wednesday, because Medvedev did indeed find himself in a “fight for his life.” Auger-Aliassime, who looks like CRISPR-designed tennis perfection even if his results haven’t yet caught up to his talent, played maybe the most physically and tactically sharp match of his career. The 21-year-old Canadian has balance, size, strength, technique, and an unfortunate reputation for choking in high-pressure matches. All that history fell away as the No. 9 selected his shots perfectly to go up two sets and see some early break points in the third. Nobody with a valid Australian visa has given Medvedev that much trouble at a hard-court major in two years. But the No. 2 seed now emanates an aura once reserved for the Big Three: inevitability. And apparently he drew some direct inspiration, mid-match. “I told myself ‘what Novak would do?’ Because he’s one of the greatest champions. Or Roger or Rafa, they have won so many matches like this,” Medvedev said after the match. “I just thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna make him work. If he wants to win it, he needs to fight to the last point. It worked, I managed to raise my level, especially in the [third set] tiebreak.”
After a rain delay in the third set, they closed the roof; Medvedev later said he felt that he could hit through the court better in indoor conditions. As his trademark shots—skidding maddeningly low, hard to attack—began to find their spots, the rallies got a little longer. And Auger-Aliassime, desperate to break down Medvedev’s defenses, began to overhit his once–carefully weighted groundstrokes. Medvedev defense tends to scramble even the most carefully calibrated offensive game plans. He’s 6-foot-6, and standing 15 feet behind the baseline, so it should be easier to hit the ball past him—but then there’s a blur of limbs, a noodly swing, and the ball comes back every time.
It was a match with atmosphere so thick that Medvedev, who typically treats the primetime show court like a waiting room at the DMV, did the unheard of: He acknowledged the existence of the crowd in a non-antagonistic way, even pumped himself up at crucial junctures of the match. And while it would be hard for anyone to muster a smile after losing two sets in a row, and one match point, Auger-Aliassime flashed some teeth after swatting a one-handed passing shot early in the fifth.
For Auger-Aliassime, who lost in straight sets to a title-bound Medvedev in the U.S. Open semifinal last fall, and got bageled by him earlier this month, this match has to feel like progress, however frustrating. In tennis there is such a thing as a breakthrough loss. The men’s game hasn’t seen a 21-year-old this polished in forever, and he should be fighting his way into major finals for a long time—even if Daniil Medvedev, the best player of his generation, will be standing across the net from him more often that he’d like.