Tennis journalists love stories that write themselves, and at 3-3, 0-30 in set 2 this was going to be a piece of cake.
Novak Djokovic, the number 1 seed, had just won the point with a confident backhand volley. He was treating Daniil Medvedev’s second serves with near disdain, and was striking the ball beautifully from both wings on the baseline, while mixing in drop shots and net attacks to throw his opponent out of rhythm.
Medvedev had won several matches this week by giving his opponent nothing to hit, and waiting for an error: Djokovic saw and raised that play, frequently turning defensive rallies into offensive ones. Did I mention that he was feasting on Medvedev’s second serves?
Through the middle of set 2 Novak was winning 70% of Daniil’s second serve points (in press Daniil guessed it was 80%), a pattern tennis analyst Craig O’Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) has described as having three serves to one.
So journalists were getting ready to file “Novak Rampant” stories: 90 minutes later we were talking with a stunned number 1 seed telling us he thought he’d played a good match even though he was now out of the tournament.
For what it’s worth, I agree that he played a good match, and his level didn’t drop appreciably until the very last game, when he was serving 3-5 down. Between the 3-3 0-30 set 2 point and the tail-end of set 3, the normally risk-averse Medvedev threw caution to the wind and began serving like Nick Kyrgios – not in terms of pace, but basically by serving two first serves.
(If the first first serve missed: there was an amusing interlude in set 3 when Mohamed Lahyani in the chair had to keep overruling an errant line judge who kept calling Medvedev’s bombs wide.)
In press after the match, Djokovic kept circling back to the monster second serves he tried to get a racquet on (Medvedev served 5 second serve aces, including one in the pivotal 3-3 game at 30-30):
Q. He started changing his tactics, going bigger midway through the second set. How were you attempting to cope with that at that point?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I thought I played really good match. Yes, maybe in those games, especially in the third set when I was broken, at 1-All I could have done a little bit better, but, I mean, when someone serves 128-miles-per-hour second serve and doesn’t make too many doubles faults and goes for every shot, I mean, you just have to put your hat down and congratulate him.
I mean, he has played amazing tennis from 4-3 in the second set. Not much that I could really do. I mean, I tried to return his serve. And when I had my racquet on the ball I was returning also his serves, but you can’t really predict someone or prepare yourself for someone serving that big second serve consistently from 4-3 to the end of the match with making maybe two double faults out of God knows how many serves.
I asked Novak about baseline tactics. I thought he’d done a good job changing up patterns on his opponent: Again, he went back to those Medvedev second serves:
Q. Tactically you were going down the line quite a lot in the extended rallies rather than just going crosscourt. I wonder if that was part of the game plan. Did things shift as the match went on?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I thought tactically I was doing really well. I mean, I had some break points second set. You know, I was one shot, one point away from taking a break in the second set and maybe taking the match in straight sets.
I thought I was mixing my serve very well. You know, you can’t do much really if 30-40 comes up with two aces. Second set then 3-All, Love-30 he comes up with ace second, ace first, ace second. What can you do? It’s one of these things that, one of these kind of situations where you just have to accept it, and I don’t think I have done too much wrong, to be honest.
I’m very pleased with the way I have played entire tournament. Obviously it hurts to lose a match. Of course it does. But at the end of the day, I’m positive about my game.
Medvedev was happy but quietly confident in his own interview. He talked about the key decision to go big or go home:
Q. Five second-serve aces tonight, looked like you really started going big on the second midway through the second set.
DANIIL MEDVEDEV: Yeah, I didn’t know it was five. Yeah, as I said on the court, at one moment, I think it was 3-All, 30-All when I did the first time, and I was standing there before my second serve, and I was, like, I’m losing literally. I don’t know the percentage I had, but in my opinion I had, like, 20% the second service won. Especially in the crucial moments he was pushing me.
So I say, If I do one double fault it won’t change my life. Same result. But if I put it in, it’s maybe going to be an ace, and I actually made a good decision to do it like this.
Novak had insisted that he’d played well: I asked Daniil if he’d noticed any change in his opponent’s level during the match, and I got a very insightful answer:
Q. So you clearly lifted your game in the second set in the middle of the second set. Did you notice Novak’s game drop off, or did you think he stayed at about the same level but you just outcompeted him?
DANIIL MEDVEDEV: It’s tough to say, because I think it’s completely normal in tennis where you’re one on one that when one energy lifts up, and I actually felt it already at, like, 2-All, I think, or 3-2 for me in the second set, I’m starting to catch the second breath, starting to be more aggressive, and I find it completely normal that even such champion as Novak can feel my energy growing up and so his energy went a little bit down.
I managed to use it straightaway in the third set, also, and just kept the gap that I made during this momentum change.
The crowd got fully behind the Russian as the comeback picked up momentum, and I thought Novak played the final game in a semi resigned way. But I don’t think this has dented his confidence significantly before the US Open. Daniil Medvedev, though, has another chance to play for the biggest title of his career tomorrow, and he’s confident that he’ll have enough strength left in his legs to give a good account of himself. Perhaps Monday’s headlines will read “Daniil Rampant.”