Medvedev Crosses The Moat
The serve differential, Medvedev beats the Djokovic backhand, the set two momentum killer, the Big 3 moat shallows
Women’s final: Raducanu return analysis
Anyone watching the men’s final would have been able to work out what was happening for the most part, so, for once, this match really doesn’t need too much explaining. Djokovic, physically and mentally exhausted after a tough season and under the pressure of trying to complete the calendar year Grand Slam for the first time in 52 years, was not himself. And Medvedev was truly excellent, superior both physically and strategically. The result was a mismatch in which Djokovic never looked particularly likely to win a set, let alone the match. With Medvedev cruising through the contest only being broken once (and that break of serve was largely because of the crowd putting Medvedev off when the Russian was serving for the title the first time).
There were however two moments at the start of the second set, where Djokovic saw some rare break points on the Medvedev serve. This was also the point of the match where Djokovic had started his comebacks against each of his previous four opponents (Zverev, Berrettini, Brooksby & Nishikori) after losing the first set. Against Medvedev though, Djokovic, through a mixture of his own errors and brilliant Medvedev serving and backhands, couldn’t grab that same precious momentum. Novak referenced this post-match:
Djokovic: “My feeling on the court energy-wise was not as good as it was against. Tsitsipas in Paris. Turning point was the start of the second set. I was very close to break there. Who knows the trajectory of the match, with the crowd, but he did so well, deserved to win.” Source
I’ll touch on some of the macro reasons for the result, but first I want to focus on those two games with Medvedev serving at the beginning of the second set. The Russian had been landing absolute bombs for serves (on both 1st and 2nd serves) throughout set one, but that first service game to begin set two was the first time Medvedev started missing those serves. Djokovic managed to open up a 0-40 hole thanks to some better returning, a Medvedev double fault and a forehand unforced error.
And then this happened:
Break Point, 0-40:
Break Point, 15-40: Medvedev ace. Too good.
Break Point, 30-40:
Medvedev served himself out of the game from deuce and Djokovic’s chance of a momentum shift receded.
Djokovic then had one final chance to turn things around a couple of games later with Medvedev serving at 1*-2. After a tough hold of his own, Novak put a few more good returns in play and was helped by another Medvedev double fault, to set up a couple more break points.
Break Point, 30-40:
Break Point, AD Djokovic:
Those two games (0*-1 and 1*-2) were the only moments of the match in which it looked like Djokovic may make the contest competitive. The rest of the match was as close as you can get to a rout against Novak in a hard court final. These were the moments in which Novak had put his foot down against the opponents in his previous four rounds. Medvedev, uniquely, stood up to what had become a usually inevitable second set momentum shift.
I think a better version of Djokovic does better on 2/5 of those break points (the first and the third). But Medvedev deserves endless credit for not only coming up with that backhand to save the final one, but also ruthlessly serving his way out of the deuces and AD points to avoid further pressure. There is an alternate universe somewhere where Djokovic converts one of those break points. But frankly looking at the world No.1’s footwork, movement and obvious mental fatigue as the match wore on, I’m not sure it would have made too much of a difference against Medvedev in this form.
Djokovic destroyed Medvedev’s serve when they met in the Australian Open final at the beginning of this year. In that match Medvedev won just 69% of his 1st serve points (after being in the high 70’s or 80’s against all previous opponents) and 37% on 2nd serve points. Djokovic put in an incredible performance on return that day in Australia, but a combination of better Medvedev serving and worse Djokovic returning flipped the script entirely in New York. Yesterday Medvedev won 81% of his 1st serve points and 58% of his 2nd serve points.
This US Open final was the first time in Djokovic’s career that he won fewer than 20% 1st serve return points in a hard court Slam final. Djokovic finished the match winning just 29% of return points total, which, as far as hard court Slam finals go is the second worst of his career, only beaten by Federer’s 2007 US Open win over Djokovic (27%).
In part, Medvedev achieved this banner serving performance by simply hitting and landing bigger serves, especially for the first two sets, than he had in Australia. And in contrast, Djokovic served significantly slower in New York yesterday than he had in Melbourne:
Aus Open Final: 120mph 1st serve avg, 97mph 2nd serve avg
US Open Final: 114mph 1st serve avg, 89mph 2nd serve avg
Aus Open Final: 123mph 1st serve avg, 93mph 2nd serve avg
US Open Final: 122mph 1st serve avg, 99mph 2nd serve avg
Djokovic’s 2nd serve placement and speed has been a revelation in his hard and grass court results since 2018. In Australia, Novak consistently found the weaker Medvedev forehand on return by landing his speedy, slice 2nd serves out wide on the deuce side and down the T on the AD side. But whether it was because of fatigue or a niggling injury, Novak’s serve in yesterday’s final just didn’t live up to its recent effectiveness on this surface. Instead of the patterns above, Djokovic was left regularly rolling in central, slower 2nd serves which allowed Medvedev to hit backhand returns into Novak’s backhand and initiate his favoured rally patterns (explained further below):
This manifested with Djokovic winning just 40% of his 2nd serve points compared to 58% in Australia.
In stark contrast, in the first set and second sets especially, Medvedev was landing some 110-120mph 2nd serve missiles to regularly shut the door on Djokovic’s return. Medvedev has successfully pulled off this ‘two first serves’ strategy before against Djokovic on a hard court, most notably in Cincinnati in 2019. At the time I wrote:
As above, Medvedev clearly already had the blueprint for beating Djokovic. And on the back of better than ever Medvedev serving, and worse than usual returning and movement from Djokovic, the Russian executed his groundstroke strategy flawlessly:
By directing most of his forehand and backhand groundstroke traffic deep into the Djokovic backhand (which contrary to popular belief is the more error prone wing of Djokovic), Medvedev got to rely on his own backhand strength as much as possible (because Djokovic will usually hit his backhand cross court rather than down the line), outlasting Djokovic in the long, neutral cross court rallies:
Points won by length:
0-4 shots: Medvedev 59, Djokovic 58
5-8 shots: Medvedev 22, Djokovic 17
9+ shots: Medvedev 18, Djokovic 8
(In Australia this year Djokovic won every point length category)
In New York it was Medvedev who usually had the initiative to change directions or go on the offensive first. This was the total opposite to their Australian Open final in which not only did Djokovic’s backhand depth hold up extremely well, but Novak was almost always the first of the two players to get an aggressive forehand into play usually pulling Medvedev wide to his own weaker forehand wing. Medvedev yesterday managed to handcuff Novak in that backhand corner, exploited the fatigue, and then rarely missed. Djokovic’s worse than usual serving performance compounded this problem.
For Djokovic, it was simply a match too far. The world No.1 deserves enormous credit for an incredible season, even if he fell just shy of being the first man to win the calendar year Grand Slam in over half a century. That achievement is one of the most elusive records in tennis for very good reason — It’s extremely fucking hard.
All in all it wasn’t one of the better finals, with Medvedev playing far too well for this depleted version of Djokovic. But the Russian has been, overall, the best player on the North American hard courts over the last three years, and remains either the best or second best hard courter in the world right now. The Slam breakthrough is hugely deserved and Medvedev should be praised for his wonderful problem solving ability, especially after the beatdown he took in Australia against Djokovic earlier this year. Novak will still be the narrow favourite in January at his best Slam down under, but Medvedev winning a major by going through one of the ‘Big 3’ is an undeniable watershed moment for men’s tennis. It is the first time a meaningfully younger player has beaten a ‘Big 3’ member in a Slam final. The Slams were the last inner-keep holdout for the ‘Big 3’ supremacy, with their combined experience and extraordinary ability over five sets the last true moat separating them from the oncoming youthful horde. That moat has now shallowed and the inner keep breached. But one or more of those three legends will still be fighting tooth and nail to ensure there isn’t a total handover of power quite yet. 2022 will be a fascinating year for men’s tennis as the old guard continue to struggle to replicate their historic hold on the biggest prizes. For now, Medvedev, a worthy warrior, deserves the spoils for being the first younger usurper.
Medvedev has crossed the moat.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
I’ll see you on Thursday.
Photos: Al Bello/Getty
// Looking for more?