US Open - Part 2
There was so much excitement on the women’s side that you could be excused for forgetting that one man, Novak Djokovic, was attempting to pull off the most difficult feat in our sport. A calendar grand slam. The last woman player to achieve this was Steffi Graf in 1988, and in the men, it was Rod Laver, once in 1962 as an amateur and again in 1969 as a pro. Novak has proved himself, at 34, to be a survivor and a master of his craft, often spurred on by his greatest rivals. Prior to this year he had two great seasons in 2011 and 2016, but with the stars of Rafa, Roger and Andy waning plus the NexGen stars not yet fully established, 2021 has been regarded as his best chance, perhaps his last chance to achieve the holy grail of tennis.
2021 began steadily enough. In Australia Novak peaked to perfection seeing off Rafa, who had defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets, then Daniil Medvedev in straight sets, after basically Daniil self-destructed after dropping the first set.
At the French Novak beat Rafa on his favorite surface, for the second time, in one of the most intense matches ever seen on clay. In the final Novak only just saw off Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets from two sets down. I don’t think either player had much left in the tank (See previous reports).
At Wimbledon the field had an appearance of being less strong and the NexGen players did not perform as their rankings suggested. Nevertheless, you still must win the matches and whilst Mateo Berrettini on paper seemed like a surprise finalist, he had found his grass court form early in Queens and was definitely on a roll. After Mateo had overcome his nerves, he suddenly played a lot better and recovered a deficit to take the first set. After this though, Novak used his most reliable strategy of wearing down his opponents into mistakes by not making any himself. So, three slams in the bag. One to go, easy right? Well, that’s what Novak wanted his rivals to think.
Before we go into the why’s and wherefores’ of Daniil Medvedev’s victory it is worth noting a nagging story that’s been attached to Novak’s coat tails pretty much the entirety of his career. Why do people love Roger and Rafa more than ‘him’? Maybe its a case of always having to catch up so to speak and of course a good story always needs a bad guy. Whilst it’s too strong to use the ‘bad’ label, spending a lot of energy trying to be something else in the public’s mind is surely distracting. Public affection seems to be a funny old thing as Andy Murray found out in 2012. When they witnessed his fragility and emotional side, suddenly there was a connection. Somehow it became easier for him afterwards.
Jonny Mac made an entertaining video at Wimbledon called “It ain’t a popularity contest”. When I saw Novak trying not to cry in the US Open final, we knew other things are important too.
Sorry Commissioner McEnroe, we all need a little love and adulation.
Novak Djokovic & Daniil Medvedev
Was Novak v Daniil always a two-horse race? As the adage goes, it is until you prove otherwise. On the other hand, ever since Wimbledon, Novak made it quite clear he was aware of the record. Yeah of course he was. It was very much on his radar. So how was he to deflect the inevitable attention over the next couple of months. Firstly, there was the decision not to play any tournaments in between, except the Olympics. Maybe he meant to, but he found a way not to. First law of supremacy: don’t give any of your rivals, or anyone else, a chance to play competitive matches against you. Yes, he was probably tired after winning back-to-back slams, but an elite athlete, tired for two months? Ok it’s been done before. I don’t remember Bjorn Borg playing much between Wimbledon and the US Open so maybe I’m dicing with paranoia. As someone says though, “every little helps”. So, any kind of edge when we are talking 1% here or there can make all the difference.
Then there was the stumble at the Tokyo Olympics when it wasn’t meant to happen. Leading by a set and a break versus Sasha Zverev, in their semi-final, Sasha, realizing that trying to be consistent wasn’t going to melt any ice decided to go for broke. He served massive, first and second, and unleashed his powerful ground strokes. The change was so overwhelming that as hard as Novak tried, he couldn’t solve the new problems in time and only managed to win one more game in this best of three contest. Novak really really wanted a gold medal and it showed. Sasha went on to win the gold himself and mentioned it in typical fashion “Hey he’s won 4000 tournaments or whatever, it’s about time he gave a few away!” It was more than that. It was a warning that Zverev was going to be taking hard court form into the American hard-court season.
So, we came to the US Open. Normally any top seeded player would have a target on their back. In his pre-tournament interview Novak talked about his confidence, will and determination. Talk about adding to the stakes. Surely now everyone will try much harder.
Round 1. It is said that top seeds are more vulnerable in the early rounds. Holger Rune is a promising 18 year from Denmark, who was a qualifier. Capable of producing quick forehand winners plus some interesting slice backhands. Holger broke early in the second set, nearly blew it, but Novak threw in a double fault at 4-3 after recovering from 0-3. Holger played aggressive tennis in the tie-break to take it 7-5. Holger then had increasing bouts of cramp which ended any further chances.
Novak: 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-1
Round 2. More straightforward performance. Through 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 versus Tallon Griekspoor from the Netherlands
Round 3. First test versus the talented but not always fit Kei Nishikori. This time his speed is working which he uses to good effect. His main problem is getting wins against Novak. Kei has two wins, but Novak is on a 17-0 run. Kei can take the ball early, come in and volley, but Novak can just read his game and knows he can take away his legs. A couple of shared breaks took the first set to tie-break which Kei wins. After this the match was attritional. Some great points. Kei just had to work harder and run a greater distance.
Novak: 6-7(4), 6-3,6-3, 6-2 in 3 ½ hours.
Round 4. Jenson Brooksby. An 18-year American player of promise. Watched several of his games in the lead up tournaments. Explosive and in your face tennis.
Rushed to a 6-1 first set win. Has a compact style which is great from the back of the court. When Novak started introducing drop shots, in the second, the match really started. As much pressure that Jenson threw at Novak, it boiled down to two games. A 20-minute service game Novak should have held and a similar one for Jenson. Some of the points were monsters, but Novak just wouldn’t let go. A 68-minute 6-3 set to Novak. Whilst Jenson remained spirited, he was being run all over the place. Relentless.
Novak: 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2
Quarter-Final. Matteo Berrettini. Doesn’t get any easier. Matteo, big serve big forehand is his forte. In the first set Novak was probing but not always finding the mark. At 5-5 Matteo found a forehand crosscourt winner for the first break of the match. At 6-5 he served out having let a 40-0 lead slip. First Set Matteo 7-5. Then, as in previous rounds Novak changed his tactics straight away. Slicing to Matteo’s sliced backhand, time after time. This took away a lot of Matteo’s power and when it became about tactics and placement Novak is way better at creating openings. Novak broke twice in sets 2 and 3 plus once in third.
Novak: 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3
Semi-Final. Sasha Zverev. This was going to be the test Sasha was hoping for. He’d beaten Novak in Tokyo, but could he do it over five sets? Sasha did well in the lead up tournaments, winning one, and in 5 rounds to semi’s had only dropped a single set to Jack Sock. Reasons to be cheerful. No probing and more respect for Sasha by Novak. Big serves and put away shots by both players. In their stride early. Some drop shots but not far enough away for each player to retrieve. At 4-4 Novak lost some concentration and double faulted for a break to Sasha. Sasha serving some 132 mile serves, up 40-0 quickly, wins first set 6-4. Second game second set Sasha double faults. This immediately lifts Novak who increases his ground speed, hits deeper slices and waits for chances to use drop shots for maximum runs for Sasha. Some he gets but some are missed over baseline. 6-2 to Novak. Sasha started the third spritely by creating some sharp angle returns. At 2-2 he created a couple of break point chances by hitting a half volley back hand shot down the line. However, Novak has a way of containing players by hitting slower serves down the middle to maximize players reach plus slow kickers going wide. So here we entered Novak’s preferred play of multiple extended rallies of not really going for anything but hitting good length or width. At 4-5 he created 3 set points on Sasha’s serve. Sasha saved the first on a big first serve. There was then a monster rally of 30 plus shots which Sasha won but you could see he was heavy legged which was followed by another rally that generated an easy put away for Novak 6-4.
Sasha has his breath back for fourth set. Coming in more, not waiting for long rallies to develop. Good plan as although he’s getting passed, he’s now making Novak go for shots earlier. At 1-1 it pays off and he gets chances to break, which brings his big forehand into play. Remainder of set see’s both players maintaining their serves.
Sasha takes it 6-4.
In the Fifth set, Sasha gets cagey, Novak back to super long rallies. Nightmare scenario. Sasha doesn’t cope. Novak breaks and storms to 5-0. Sasha manages a couple of games, but the damage had already been done.
Novak 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. One match away from dream. Rod Laver in the house.
On paper, only dropping one set on the way to the final is impressive. Let’s see.
Round 1: Richard Gasquet. Famous one-handed backhand used on first point. Very ‘whippy’ forehand. Richard having to work very hard on his serves. Staying with Daniil but on his serve, he’s having to red line it a bit. Mixture of big forehands or backhands to the corners and hopes he can come in to volley. Daniil finding a way to get a lot back. At 4-5 Daniil plays two master top spin lobs, one on set point.
Second set more of the same. Short Daniil service games, but long for Richard. Daniil increasing the use of drop shots using side spin. Break comes at 2-3. Richard had a couple of points to break at 3-5 but Daniil seemingly out of position had this awkward looking backhand that just works well. Flat and fast down the line.
Third set, Richard is done on running.
Daniil 6-4, 6-3, 6-1
Round 2 Dominik Koepfer took Roger Federer to 5 sets at Roland Garros. 5 Sets in 1st round here. Dominik is a left hander. Likes backhand drop shots to Daniil’s backhand side, but he plays like a clay courter on a hard court. Dominik goes down an early break but gets it back only to drop his again. No mistake this time. 6-4 to Daniil. Dominik staying back too much. Daniil likes the short cross court shot. Breaking service at will. Dominik having to run like a mad man to get points. No answers but fights hard.
Daniil 6-4, 6-1, 6-2
Round 3 Pablo Andujar from Spain. Had 5 sets in 1st round from 2 sets down, straight sets in 2nd round.
Tries to implement the consistent game but Daniil way better than that. Clean sweep in 1st set.
In 2nd set Pablo introduces some drop shots. He has a not bad overhead and can serve and volley too, which is helping him to hold serve but Daniil upping the pace on his serve. Brutal stuff, like rifle shots corner to corner. Daniil can really take the pace off on the forehand angled drop shot. Daniil tight on service points. Broke at 2-2 and saved 2 break points at 5-4 up.
Daniil breaks at 1-1 in 3rd, saves a break at 3-2. Pablo is playing more attacking which is earning him points but Daniil chasing everything. How many extra shots does he need per point he must be asking himself? In the end its way too much pressure.
Daniil 6-0, 6-4, 6-3
Round 4 Dan Evans who is on his best run at a slam. All 3 of his previous matches long. 6 hours for rounds 1 and 2 plus 4 hours to beat Alexi Popyrin, the lankly Australian, from 0-2 in sets, 7-6 in 5th.
Dan is a much-improved serve and volleyer. Also, he possesses a crafty backhand slice. However, Dan finds out that when you don’t hit your spots Daniil can pick you off down the line. Dan works quite well to move Daniil around and send some of his single hand backhands down the line, but Daniil is still reaching most of them.
In 2nd set Dan, like everyone else so far, spending most of the time on his own serve. Dan trying to apply his own stealth, but speed, power and accuracy matters at this level. Dan goes down a break in second and breaks back for 3-3. However, holding serve afterwards was too hard. No letup in Daniil’s intensity. Still, Dan had a break point for 4-4. Daniil’s response, two aces to win game. A case of dancing to Daniil’s tune.
Daniil 6-3, 6-4, 6-3
Quarter-Final Botic Van de Zandschulp. The man with a happy smile. Won 3 rounds of qualifying. A 5 setter in R1, saw off Casper Ruud in R2, a quicker R3, but had an entertaining 5 setter with the tough Argentinian, Diego Schwartzman, 4 hours 20.
Botic is a careful server with an explosive forehand and a tasty overhead. Can hit a great length, down the middle like Daniil. However, he finds that Daniil is a little like a brick wall. Drops his serve twice in 1st set and gets one break back. Botic has a smooth forehand down the line, plus one that can go cross court. Again though, the retrieving skills plus that pesky backhand down the line shot that doesn’t look possible.
The 2nd set is a runaway for Daniil. Ouch.
Botic is loosening up a bit now, stays in the rallies longer and hits a great short drop shot. At 2-2 he looks more comfortable and manages to get a breakup. Botic, serving for set, hits a great forehand drop shot at 15-30 and serves out for 6-4. The first player this week to take a set off Daniil.
Botic continues to impress in the 4th set. Great serves and powerful forehands, but Daniil continues to dominate on his own service games. However, at 5-6 Botic’s luck ran out.
Daniil 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5
Semi-Final. Felix Auger-Aliassime from Canada. A very hard route for Felix to navigate. A 4-hour match in R1, versus Evgeny Donskoy, another 4-hour match in R3 versus Roberto Bautista Agut, 3 ½ hours versus Frances Tiafoe in R4 and had a short match versus the young up and coming Carlos Alcarez who retired after a set and a half.
Carlos had played 7 ½ hours in his previous 2 matches v Stefanos Tsitsipas and Peter Gojowczyk.
This semi-final was one round better for Felix having reached the quarter final at Wimbledon.
Felix has a whippy forehand and a good feel for a half volley around the net, particularly drop shots. He is double handed on the backhand and maybe telegraphing the dropshot too much.
Daniil breaks at 3-3. Felix does his best to get back into 1st set and goes up 0-30, but boom boom boom the set is over. His expression is “What just happened?”.
Daniil likes to get forward even if it means bunting the ball forward. It is such a funny looking thing; it confuses Felix who is then on the end of a string.
Felix is playing better in set 2. More aggressive forehands doing some damage, breaks and goes up 5-2. Another spoon forehand bunt works for Daniil. Holds serve for 3-5. Felix feels like he should win set from here. He has set point, but Daniil just goes for broke on 3 ground shots on first and gets a volley error on the next.
Another break, Daniil’s back in it. Holds and then breaks again to love for 6-5 and then holds to 15. It wasn’t a whirlwind; it was a tornado and wow; Daniil can really turn it on. 10 out of last 11 points.
When Felix is broken at 1-1 in 3rd the confidence and resolve had been broken. Felix had one more chance to break, but once that had passed Daniil’s place in the final was secure.
Daniil 6-4, 7-5, 6-2
The Final: Djokovic v Medvedev
After all this effort there’s one to go. Going in to this, there were some inevitable questions. Novak had been on court 5 more hours than Daniil. Did this matter? Did Novak still have the mental edge? Well, he wanted it that way. Had Daniil learned anything from their encounter in Melbourne? Not having any tough matches along the way. Did this matter? Jim Courier was asked this, and he said “Given the choice I think I would choose the easy route every time”.
Novak started well enough but looked a little sluggish and was broken in the first game and almost went down a second break. Daniil is serving big, and takes the 1st set.
Novak stayed with Daniil and earned himself some break points at 1-0 40-0 plus another advantage point, but Daniil was able to get out of trouble. Novak was broken soon after. At 5-4 Novak’s normally secure cross court dink off a dropshot was easily read by Daniil who went down the line. On the 40-0 set point Daniil even pulled off his spoon bunt shot which Novak missed attempting to go down the line.
Daniil breaks in opening game of third. Novak attempts another drop shot in next, but Daniil is reading them all, there in plenty of time, hits it into open space cross court. Novak keeps holding, but no way through Daniil service games. There was a splattering of extended rallies, each time though Novak was having to rally at a faster pace than he looked comfortable with and was the first to make the error. It was never by much, but that’s all Daniil needed.
It’s a first grand slam title to Daniil. Well-deserved result. Overall, he was fresher and hungrier than Novak who did look weary at times. Perhaps the pressure of the moment, even the whole emotional year was too much.
During the presentation ceremony, Daniil gave a knowing look towards Novak. “I’ve left my mark on you, it’s not going to be easy for you anymore.”