Novak Djokovic Beat Daniil Medvedev In A Symphony Of Pain
1:19 PM EDT on September 11, 2023
The U.S. Open men's final on Sunday contained a rare scene: Novak Djokovic looking tired early in the match. It wasn't just the usual hangdog routine from him and other players who like to grind down the pace of play: shuffling to the towel and back, meditative ball-bouncing, a shoe or sock adjustment. This was a chest-heaving, limp-legged fatigue that had him collapsing to the court after rallies and stretching his hips between points.
Djokovic had his conditioning issues as a pup, but he has spent over a decade as one of the fittest athletes alive. "I felt like I was losing air on so many occasions, and my legs, as well," he said after the match. "I don't recall being so exhausted after rallies really as I have been in the second set." His visible misery was testament to the brutalizing rallies Daniil Medvedev trapped him in throughout their second set, which lasted 104 minutes and sealed the outcome of this match. But the second-seeded Djokovic triumphed in the eventual tiebreak, and third set, to win his 24th major title over the No. 3 seed. The 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 scoreline doesn't accurately convey the suffering.
A major final involving Djokovic is generally a foregone conclusion—he has won 16 of his last 20—though it can get spicy if the challenger transcends his typical form. Medvedev arrived fresh off the best performance of his career: In his four-set semifinal defeat of No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz on Friday, the best start-to-finish match of the men's tournament, he restated the terms of that rivalry. Alcaraz had ruined him in their previous two meetings this year, exploiting Medvedev's deep court positioning with his dynamism, drop shots, and serve-and-volley. After dropping all five sets in Indian Wells and Wimbledon, Medevdev had no choice but to Make Adjustments. He struck a harder and flatter forehand, took his returns sharply cross-court to punish Alcaraz's net attacks, and scrambled around the court like a tentacular demon.
"He's amazing. And when I do serve and volley, he always find the passing shot from, you know, from his house," Alcaraz said, laughing. Medvedev said he liked the court surface at the U.S. Open, which gets him playing faster and more aggressive. This was his third final here, and in his last visit in 2021, he slew Djokovic in straight sets. He's the rare player to come into this matchup with some justifiable self-belief.
Djokovic and Medvedev love pain. They entangle one another in confounding, lung-punishing baseline rallies so often that I'm left wondering why they didn't take up a gentler vocation, like a desert ultramarathon. Both players like to pry open the court gradually, so it's attrition against attrition, starring two of the best movers in tennis. The players come by their court coverage in different ways: Novak with a more conventional tennis build and explosive first step, Medvedev with gawky fluidity at a 6-foot-6 frame and a smothering wingspan. Djokovic prefers to post up closer to the baseline, while Medvedev finds comfort in some of the deepest court positioning tennis has ever seen. What they share is post-human stamina. Over the course of the three-set match match, each player ran roughly 3.4 miles, much of it sprinted. They played 54 points that lasted over nine shots. Their average rally length was 6.3 shots, an absurd figure considering how much of contemporary men's tennis is won on the serve or the forehand right after. After the match, Medvedev described these as "arm-wrestling points and games."
Both players embraced masochistic tendencies in that second set, which was a match unto itself. That's not an exaggeration: The set lasted nine minutes longer than the entirety of Djokovic's first-round match at the Open. After an uninspired first set, Medvedev ratcheted himself up to the same level that beat Alcaraz in the semifinal. After nine or 10 balls, Djokovic's form began to dip, and he might try to cut short these rallies with a drop shot, leading Medvedev to eat up the court and send back a precision retort. Eventually, Medvedev earned a set point at 6-5 that could've changed the course of the match. Djokovic stood at the net. Medvedev had to track down a short ball, and pick a direction for his passing shot. He chose to hit crosscourt, straight back at his foe, instead of sending it down the sideline, which he later cited as a critical regret. The players lurched onto a tiebreak, the crucible where Djokovic thrives. After winning that one, he improved to 25-5 in tiebreaks on the season. Before the third set, Medvedev took a medical timeout to get his left shoulder massaged. There were few mild plot-twist breaks of serve, but the rest was a formality.
Medvedev is hailed as an adaptable tactician, as seen in his triumph over Alcaraz, but a stubborn commitment to a particular tactic might have cost him the match. He prefers to stand deep behind the baseline when returning serve, and it's treated him well; over the last year, he's broken serve at a rate surpassed only by Carlos Alcaraz. But this position effectively dares his opponent to serve-and-volley. When the returner stands that far away, it takes that much longer for the return to come back over the net, giving the server enough time to rush forward. It also leaves the returner vulnerable to sharply angled volleys.
Most opponents aren't technically sound enough to make Medvedev pay for his positioning. "I don't really care too much if the guy is serving and volleying. It makes it a little bit tougher but he has to do it good," he said after. Alcaraz, who does do it good, mixed in plenty of serve-and-volley points in the semifinal, but Medvedev hurt him with dipping cross-court returns. He couldn't find a way to punish Djokovic, who spammed the serve-and-volley and covered the crosscourt return with extraordinary consistency. "Was a little bit stubborn on return. I probably should have changed my position," Medvedev said after. "But I had the feeling that it's gonna work like this and I'm going to make it work." In his defense, he has spent his career calibrating his return technique for that deep position. Stepping forward and leaving his comfort zone mid-match was a tricky ask.
While Djokovic was forced to struggle in this match, taken as a whole, this U.S. Open was one of the many straightforward major title runs of his career. He only lost sets in his third-round match, when fellow countryman Laslo Djere redlined to claim a two-set lead that never quite felt secure. There are few forces in sports or human competition as inevitable as Novak Djokovic, even at age 36. He'll return to the world No. 1 slot next week after temporarily renting it it out to his newfound rival.
Djokovic won three of the 2023 majors and barely lost the other one. The historic numbers are staggering, and they divide cleanly: He has played in 72 majors, made the final in 36, and won 24. "I don't put any number right now in my mind on how many slams I want to win," he said afterward. Beating him in a major final remains the definitive test of young talent. Alcaraz has passed. Medvedev has passed before, but on Sunday, all he did was make an old man tired.