Danill Medvedev has played more tennis than any other ATP player over the past five weeks.
A full week in Washington. A full week in Montreal. A full week in Cincinnati. Now, Medvedev is in the U.S. Open semifinals.
His body was barking at him loudly enough in Tuesday’s quarterfinal against Stan Wawrinka that he resorted to a large number of drop shots in the first set of that contest. Medvedev knew he would get two full days off if he got through Wawrinka. Achieving that task was the hard part.
Wawrinka, it turns out, was ill on Tuesday:
Stan confirmed to the swiss press the rumors of him being sick were true. He stayed in bed with a flu since the win against Novak and couldn’t practice. Gave all he could on the court tonight and wished he had more energy left. #USOpen #hardluck 😩 pic.twitter.com/s1OCTlIoOq
— Lisa (BEL21VE) (@lisa_wawrinka) September 4, 2019
Wawrinka knew he would also get two days off if he got through Medvedev… but achieving the task was the hard part.
In a match in which two men faced considerable physical limitations, the first set was huge. It was going to tell the loser how big a hill he would have to climb, and it would give the winner time to endure a dip in form. The winner of the first set wasn’t guaranteed to win, but the winner of the first set was certainly going to play the second set in a much better frame of mind, chiefly: “I can get through this, even though my body is my enemy right now.”
Wawrinka had a set point. He badly missed an offensive forehand. Medvedev won the next two points to take the first-set tiebreaker, 8-6.
That was the most important sequence of the match.
A similar story unfolded in the night quarterfinal on Tuesday, though with one salient difference.
Grigor Dimitrov was not physically limited in any way against Roger Federer. Dimitrov had been dealing with shoulder pain for much of the previous two years, which has played a role in his struggles, but he said earlier at this U.S. Open that he was pain free.
Federer revealed after the match what some people (including Darren Cahill) could see during the match, particularly in the fourth set: He wasn’t in tip-top shape. His back was stiff and uncomfortable.
Federer noted that if he could just get through this match — sound familiar? — he would get two days off and could cope with this limitation. It might have gone away by the time he arrived at Friday’s semifinal against Medvedev…
… but could Federer get there?
Circumstances are what they are. Players’ bodies are limited on a given day. They don’t feel as good as they hope to. No matter — they have to play if they want to win, and they must tough it out. The opponent, for his part, has to be good enough to take advantage of the circumstances provided.
It isn’t a normal situation, but it is the situation two athletes are given. Can the disadvantaged athlete get through this tough situation? Can the athlete with the advantage make the most of a rare opportunity?
Federer knows personally how huge it can be to survive a day marred by physical discomfort and pain. He also knows that it is up to the opponent to be good enough to take advantage of the times when he is suffering on court.
Recall the 2012 Wimbledon fourth-round match between Federer and Xavier Malisse. Federer was broken at 5-5, enabling Malisse to serve for the first set at 6-5. Federer went off court for treatment of his back, which was not responding well to the cool, damp conditions. Some people feared Federer would retire if Malisse served out the first set.
Malisse had his chance.
He got broken and then lost the first-set tiebreaker.
Federer was hardly consistent the whole way through. He lost the third set and was anything but steady. Yet, winning the first set enabled him to manage his energies and maintain the confidence needed to handle the situation. Malisse was volatile enough to not pounce on this chance to defeat Federer.
The weather at Wimbledon later in the week was not as cool as it was on Manic Monday. Federer got through an easy quarterfinal against Mikhail Youzhny. By the time he reached Friday’s semifinal against Novak Djokovic, he was in better form. He beat Djokovic and then Andy Murray to win his seventh Wimbledon.
The end of the first set against Malisse made it all possible.
Against Dimitrov, Federer had a chance to level the second set at 5-5 after being down 5-3. At 4-5 and 30-0, he flinched, enabling Dimitrov to win the second set.
Federer had a chance to level the fourth set at 5-5 after being down 5-3. At 4-5 and 0-40 on Dimitrov’s serve, Federer watched Dimitrov play a series of ballsy points to hold serve and take the match to a fifth set.
Federer was not in good-enough shape to win a five-set match. He needed to win in straights or no more than four. Yet, Dimitrov was skilled enough and tough enough to split the first four sets, which was what he needed to earn this victory.
Dimitrov answered the bell at the right times. On so many occasions in the past, Dimitrov squandered favorable circumstances. As limited as Federer was, Dimitrov — who had lost to the World No. 405 in Atlanta a month earlier — had to be strong enough to claim his prize.
He was. He earned it. He deserved it… just as Federer did against Malisse seven years earlier, and just as Medvedev earned his escape in the first set against Wawrinka.
Daniil Medvedev and Grigor Dimitrov called forth maximum concentration in the most important moments of their matches. Tennis is an untimed sport, but the timing attached to demonstrations of composure and quality changes tournaments… and fortunes… and careers.
Now, Medvedev and Dimitrov will play for a career-changing moment on Friday: a first major final.