By Giri Nathan
So many narratives swirl around the US Open that it’s somehow possible to overlook its 2021 men’s champion. Not me, though—never underestimate Daniil Medvedev on a hard court, where he can wriggle around in the deepest reaches of the court and torment his opponents with malevolent patience. But it’s easy to see why the Octopus has slipped from his past prominence. Heading into the tournament, the rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz had flared so bright that Medvedev’s pre-Open press was packed with questions about the only two guys ranked above him.
That was fine, because Medvedev is the best interview on the men’s tour—he just blurts out whatever he’s thinking, and he seems to be better at thinking than most—and because he’s been following that rivalry like one of us. He usually doesn’t watch matches after losing at a tournament, but he’d been following the score of their Wimbledon final on his phone and couldn’t resist its allure. “At one moment I saw they had a 30-minute game,” he said. “I turned it on.” He tuned in to their Cincinnati final, too: “It was not easy to play in Cincinnati. The balls are tough to control. They don’t care about this. They still play their best. All this championship points saved, we go to the tiebreak. Was amazing to see.”
Did he mind that all the attention had been diverted away from him and toward the Djokovic-Alcaraz hype machine? “I think that’s normal we talk about them. I do think we still talk about me. I’m not feeling too bad, but I’m going to try. The goal is, after this US Open, that we talk about me.” Asked if he enjoys playing the role of the disruptor or party pooper, he offered a peek into the contents of his large head: “I don’t know, because consciously, I don’t think about it. I just try to win. That’s the most important. But unconsciously, I feel like many times I was playing good in this role. Hopefully it can help me this week.”
This tournament is, of course, where he made his name as the disruptor supreme. His legend was forged in his 2019 Open run, when he waggled his tentacles at a booing crowd on Louis Armstrong and thanked them for their hostility: “I want all of you to know, when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.” His five-set final against Rafa Nadal a few rounds later proved that he could back up the heel shtick with ridiculous tennis. In 2021, he blocked Novak Djokovic from the calendar Slam with a straight-set victory, then flopped to the court in a gamer celebration.
Medvedev is better-liked these days, but he got a small taste of that old antagonism in his late-night defeat of Chris O’Connell in the third round, and it seemed to renew his spirits. In the quarterfinal, he faced his dear friend—and godfather of his child—Andrey Rublev. In the past, Rublev has majestically described the matches they played as kids: He was throwing racquets, crying, and whining; Daniil was throwing racquets and screaming; Andrey was grabbing clay from the court and eating it. In a sense, their quarterfinal on Wednesday wasn’t much more dignified. This time, though, it wasn’t the players’ fault. Heat and humidity conspired to produce the most miserable conditions in the sport. If you’ve watched them play, you know these two look disheveled even in the best conditions—Rublev in red-faced, self-flagellating misery; Medvedev with wild-eyed, terminal bedhead—but the weather intensified the effect. Both players spent much of this match slumped over the racquets in recovery, begging for relief. “One player is going to die, and then you’re going to see,” said Medvedev into the camera, breaking the fourth wall.
Rublev went up a break in each set. Medvedev clambered back each time. This was yet another tragic quarterfinal matchup for Rublev, who has never advanced past this stage of a major. His power is huge, but Medvedev, who owns a 6–2 record against him in the pros, just has too much game for him—too much movement, shot tolerance, stamina. When you’re that good, eyesight is optional. “At the end of the third set I kind of couldn’t see the ball anymore,” Medvedev said in his on-court interview. “I kind of played with sensations.” He rated his current form as 10 out of 10, and after this match, I’d have to agree. The tennis world might have blocked out Sunday for Djokovic-Alcaraz Vol. 5, but don’t be alarmed if this interloper elbows his way in instead.
Above: “I want all of you to know, when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.” (Agnes Ricart)