Before talking about Daniil Medvedev and where the future will take him after his gutsy performance against Rafael Nadal in the 2019 U.S. Open men’s final, consider an important nuance in how we discuss tennis champions.
A few years ago, Serena Williams surpassed Steffi Graf on the list of all-time women’s major title winners. I remarked the other day — after Serena’s loss to Bianca Andreescu in the 2019 U.S. Open women’s final — that we aren’t going to see anyone like Serena again.
Someone replying to me (through the @accent_tennis Twitter account) told me that people said there would never be another Graf.
The underlying implication of that statement was that there HAD been another Graf: Serena, who surpassed Graf’s number of major titles.
No. Serena is not “another Graf,” someone who refuted the notion that there would never be another player like Steffi ever again.
Serena is her own person, and also her own distinct tennis player. Serena’s fierce two-handed crosscourt backhand is one of her many devastating shots. Graf, in marked contrast, used a one-handed slice backhand to own Wimbledon and the other major tournaments.
Yes, they both won at least 22 majors… but they aren’t alike. The results are similar, but the players aren’t.
This is all a way of saying that even if Daniil Medvedev dominates men’s tennis in 2020s the way Novak Djokovic dominated the sport in the 2010s — which are just about to end, and have already ended at the four major tournaments — Medvedev would not be the “New Djokovic.” There is no new Djokovic. There never will be.
Let’s establish that point right off the bat. Remove any notion that Medvedev can or will be a “second coming” of Djokovic.
With that point being established, we can move forward and make a very specific comparison between Medvedev and Djokovic after the 2019 U.S. Open men’s final.
This was the last men’s major final of the decade. The decade began with Rafael Nadal playing the best season of his career, winning three of the four majors and playing his best, most overwhelmingly great tennis at the 2010 U.S. Open, where he completed his career Grand Slam and won a ninth major title at the age of 24.
The version of Nadal seen at the 2010 U.S. Open was a physically explosive version of Nadal, with nine fewer years of tread on the tires compared to the iteration of Rafa who outlasted Medvedev on Sunday. The 2010 U.S. Open revealed a version of Nadal who was as suffocating on defense as he has always been, but it also marked an occasion when Nadal beefed up his serve and won lots of cheap points from it.
This was the supremely potent version of Nadal which has not often resurfaced over the rest of the decade. It reemerged in the summer of 2013 — when Rafa won the Canada-Cincinnati-U.S. Open triple — and at 2017 Roland Garros, but it isn’t easy to replicate if only because the standard of play was so absurdly high.
Into this hurricane of brilliance walked Novak Djokovic in the 2010 U.S. Open final… at age 23.
That’s the same age Daniil Medvedev was when he faced the 33-year-old Rafa this past Sunday.
Djokovic, at 23, had just saved two match points (familiar, eh?) to beat Roger Federer in the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals. That was a powerful breakthrough for Djokovic, but he still had to prove to himself (not to mention the world) that he could belong on the same court as this turbocharged, souped-up version of Nadal.
Djokovic did not win — Rafa was too good — but the Serbian star took a set off Rafa and pushed him back in portions of the match. Djokovic won long lung-busting rallies and let Rafa know that as well as the Spaniard was playing, this match would not be easy. It would not be a foregone conclusion.
Djokovic — who wandered through the latter part of 2008, all of 2009, and the first half of 2010 in search of a higher gear and a better way of competing against the very best (Fedal) — truly found himself at the end of the 2010 U.S. Open. The Federer win in the semis was huge, but it was just as important to back up that win with a bold performance against Nadal.
Had Djokovic been wiped away in a 2, 3, and 2 blowout — making no impression on Nadal — one highly doubts Nole would have risen to such majestic heights in the 2011 tennis season. Engaging Nadal in a prolonged slugfest not only gained Rafa’s attention; it sent a message to the person who most urgently needed to know that a career transformation was possible: Djokovic himself.
The rest of the decade — the 2010s — was history.
Rafa won this U.S. Open, but Djokovic ended the decade with 15 major titles won in the 2010s, compared to Nadal’s 13 and Federer’s five.
A loss to Nadal in a U.S. Open final was a central building block for Djokovic, who had beaten a Swiss player earlier in the tournament and had escaped from a thorny match earlier in the fortnight (against Viktor Troicki in round one).
Medvedev lost to Rafa in a contentious U.S. Open final after defeating a Swiss player (Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals) and coming through a very tricky test earlier in the fortnight (against Feliciano Lopez).
Much as the 2010 U.S. Open tested and pushed Djokovic’s limits — physically, mentally, emotionally — the 2019 U.S. Open did the same for Medvedev, whose emotions ran the full spectrum, and whose body, covered in kinesio tape, endured a workload it had never encountered before.
There is no New Djokovic. There never will be.
Yet, Daniil Medvedev has very clearly put himself in the position Novak Djokovic occupied nine years ago at this time.
I have no idea if Daniil Medvedev will soar to unfathomable heights, or crash and burn, or do something in between.
I do know that he has evoked a specific point in time nine years ago, creating a fascinating backdrop for the story which will be written in the new decade to come, the 2020s.