There haven’t been a lot of positive adjectives associated with Daniil Medvedev during his run at the 2019 US Open. The ‘heel turn’ coupled with the constant booing from the crowd has been just one facet; his game and his route to success haven’t come in for much praise either.
‘Winning ugly’ means different things to different people. Has Medvedev been winning ugly in this tournament? There can be a lot of answers to that, but what can’t be denied is that the Russian’s methods have been effective.
Medvedev was back at it on Friday, doing what he does best: Winning. His semi-final opponent Grigor Dimitrov is someone who is known for playing ‘beautifully’, especially since he has modeled his game after the personification of elegance Roger Federer himself. But that meant very little as the Bulgarian was cut to size 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 in an erratic yet absorbing encounter.
The match was always going to hinge around Medvedev’s defense, and whether he was fit enough to outlast Dimitrov. The 23-year-old has played a lot of tennis lately (this is his fourth consecutive final), and in at least two matches this tournament he has had specific physical problems: Cramps in the second round, and a quad injury in the quarter-final. Was he going to be able to stay with Dimitrov in the longer rallies?
We got our answer on the very first point. The two men engaged in a 20-shot rally, with Medvedev seemingly on hand to retrieve everything Dimitrov threw at him. It ended with the Bulgarian sending a down-the-line forehand into the net; as far as signs go, that was as ominous as it could get for Dimitrov.
With his patented pattern working so well from the outset, Medvedev settled into a rhythm that proved too difficult for his opponent to disrupt. The Russian broke in that very game, and although he got broken back soon to make it 2-2, he had given enough indication by then that fatigue wasn’t going to be an issue on this day. If Dimitrov was going to win the match, he’d have to do it by out-hitting rather than out-rallying his opponent.
The problem for the 28-year-old was that he has never been comfortable at taking the initiative. Despite being blessed with great racquet, head speed and superb touch, Dimitrov has spent a lifetime of camping behind the baseline and fetching missiles fired at him by more attack-minded opponents. In essence, he does what Medvedev does, but with a little less consistency and a little more elegance.
That worked well against Federer in the quarter-final, as the Swiss legend kept misfiring on his forehand when forced to play an extra shot. But it was never going to work against Medvedev, whose rangy movement and safety-first ground strokes tend to elongate points rather than shorten them.
So the Bulgarian made a decision to play higher up in the court and take more shots on the rise than he normally does. And that, predictably, yielded inconsistent results.
Dimitrov never looked confident in the role of the aggressor, nor with a hint of a lead. He dealt well with the half-volleys he was made to hit because of standing so close to the baseline, but he often over-hit the finishing shot in his bid to put the ball past the human wall on the other side of the net.
And yet, the most crucial moments of the contest were more about Medvedev’s brilliance than Dimitrov’s incompetence.
Medvedev was making a lot of double faults in the first set (he finished with eight for the match), which kept Dimitrov in the hunt for a break. The Bulgarian eventually did get a vital break point, that too with Medvedev serving at 4-5, which meant it was a set point and a potentially match-turning moment. But that was when Medvedev played perhaps the most important shot of the match.
The 23-year-old hit a strong serve, which elicited a mid-court reply from Dimitrov. But instead of going crosscourt with his follow-up forehand as he had been doing all match, he went behind his opponent with a deep inside-out kicker. Dimitrov was taken by surprise and couldn’t get the ball back in play, and Medvedev went on to hold.
In the tiebreaker, which was otherwise an error-filled exercise, the Russian unfurled another moment of inspiration as he struggled to keep pace with his opponent. Dimitrov hit a fierce crosscourt forehand and followed it into the net, and Medvedev seemed in no position to hit a topspin pass. So he hit an instinctive, close-your-eyes-and-hope forehand slice instead, which teased Dimitrov before landing flush on the line for a winner.
The wind seemed to go out of Dimitrov’s sails after that point. He proceeded to make a forehand error on set point to hand the advantage to Medvedev, and the Russian never relinquished it.
There were more break exchanges in the second set, but Medvedev remained steady when he had to and pounced with Dimtrov serving at 4-5 – showing the Bulgarian the trick he had missed in the first set when the situation was reversed. The third set was more or less a routine affair, with the 23-year-old eliminating his double faults and sprinting towards the finish line.
This was a Medvedev special in more ways than one, as he employed his rope-a-dope techniques to first frustrate and eventually smother his opponent. After his win in Cincinnati, there was a lot of excitement around his newfound aggression and the way he had hit Novak Djokovic off the court, but in his last couple of matches at the US Open he has gone back to his idiosyncratic ways. He is getting just enough balls back to force errors at crucial times, and taking full advantage of his opponents’ inconsistencies.
Most would agree that the semi-final was, on balance, a fairly ugly match. There were substantially more errors than winners from both players – Dimitrov hit 39 winners and 46 errors, while for Medvedev the ratio was a dismal 22 to 40. Even aside from the numbers, nothing that Medvedev did could be accused of being ‘pretty’; he didn’t put away a lot of short balls with effortless winners, didn’t carve under any gorgeous slices like his opponent kept doing, and didn’t even hit a lot of passing winners that could be described as spectacular.
But the important thing is that he didn’t need to do any of that. Medvedev’s methods, as spectator-unfriendly as they may be, are still compelling because they achieve the desired result more often than not. It’s hard to find fault with what Medvedev is doing, because he has the wins to back it all up. He is not the most artistic player out there, but he is turning winning by any means necessary into an art form.
If winning ugly is a sin, then Medvedev is the biggest villain in the tennis world right now. But isn’t he comfortable with that role already?