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NEW YORK — When Daniil Medvedev plays tennis, his opponents 90 percent of the time look like the baubles of an evil genius, there to serve as both his amusement and his subjects to see how far he can push them before they break.
The other 10 percent of the time, the person he’s inflicting pain on is himself.
Up to No. 2 in the rankings, having now put some distance between himself and everyone except No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Medvedev has played some of the most brilliant tennis of anyone in the world this year.
He also pretty much gave up in the Australian Open final when things got tough against Djokovic, asked the tournament referee in Rome to “please default me” because he famously hates playing on clay, melted in the Tokyo heat at the Olympics and mentally checked out just a couple weeks ago in the semifinals of Cincinnati after colliding with a camera at the back of the court and then kicking it in retaliation.
To be clear, even in his worst moments, the 25-year old Russian is a pleasure to watch. From the moment he broke through at the 2019 U.S. Open final, turning the crowds against him early in the tournament, taunting them along the way, then endearing himself to them in a five-set loss to Rafael Nadal, you knew this guy was going to be incredible content.
“I like to argue on the court,” Medvedev said Sunday after a straightforward 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Dan Evans of Great Britain to make his third consecutive U.S. Open quarterfinal. “If I think something is not fair — which sometimes is not true, sometimes it is fair — but I think it's not fair, so I get crazy.”
But as the business end of this U.S. Open gets underway, the struggle between Medvedev’s genius and his worst impulses could very well be the difference between being a footnote in Djokovic’s quest for the calendar Grand Slam and leaving the sad club of tennis’ 20-somethings that can’t seem to quite get over the finish line at the majors.
Not only is Medvedev good enough to do it — not in the future, not when Djokovic eventually leaves the scene but right now — he has reached a status in the sport where he kind of needs to do it.
And he knows it.
After losing to Hubert Hurkacz in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon — another one of those matches where Medvedev had the lead, lost the lead, then seemed to lose his cool instead of digging in — Medvedev admitted something you won’t hear from many tennis players. As the world No. 2, Medvedev said, losing in the Round of 16 was a “bad result.”
By that standard, any time Medvedev fails to make a final, he has not lived up to expectations. For a player who is still relatively new to this level of excellence, that’s an awful lot of baggage to carry around at a Grand Slam.
“Fourth round is not enough for No. 2 in the world,” Medvedev reiterated Sunday. “It's the same every tournament. If you're top seed, if you are not in the final, let's say Cincinnati, I lost against (Andrey) Rublev (in the semifinals), brutal match, really strong play from him. But if you talk about the result itself, semifinal was not good enough.
“I want to win every tournament I play in, without putting pressure on myself. Because again, I know how to win matches, and I know sometimes why I lose them, so that's just learning and being better for the next time.”
This time, Medvedev is probably right — if he doesn’t at least make the final here, it’s not a good result for him.
Not only has he been in excellent form since landing on the North American hard courts — he was absurdly good in winning the Canadian Open title last month — the draw has begun to look like a glide path toward another meeting with Djokovic.
Medvedev’s next opponent, Botic Van de Zandschulp, is a Dutch qualifier who came into the U.S. Open ranked No. 117 in the world. In the semifinals, the highest-ranked player he could possibly face is No. 15 Felix Auger-Aliassime, a talented 21-year old but one who has never advanced past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam.
All the wins, all the titles — and, indeed, some of the losses — Medvedev has accumulated over the last couple years has built to this. He’s been heartened by coming up just shy against Nadal at this tournament in 2019 and hardened by an embarrassing performance against Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final when he won just nine games.
“If I will have one more Grand Slam final against him, will I do better? We don't know,” Medvedev said. “Will I try to do better with experience I had? For sure. I try to learn every time something good or bad happens. Sometimes I succeed, achieve. Sometimes not.”
Medvedev has earned the right to expect a lot of himself, especially at the U.S. Open. In just the last couple years, he’s won four hardcourt Masters 1000 titles and the ATP Finals. He is capable of some pretty absurd things like breaking John Isner and Reilly Opelka — arguably the two biggest servers in the sport — a combined seven times over four sets in the semifinals and finals in Canada.
And when he’s truly locked in, he sometimes seems impenetrable with the way he can contort his lithe 6-foot-6 body to track down shots, his willingness to extend rallies with simple-looking shots that aren’t intended to do anything but wear his opponent down, his use of the geometry of the court to produce winners and then the ability to come up with 130-m.p.h. serves when he needs them. If it’s all working, he’ll simply toy with you.
“I will tell you it looks very unorthodox, but he's hitting the ball pretty big, very close to the lines, great serve,” said Evans. “Everyone knows how well he moves. But I think his serve and how he goes from deep to up the court so quick is another very difficult thing to see on television until you play him.”
Medvedev’s ascent up the rankings since 2019, and the overall growth in his game, has made it seem like Grand Slam titles were a foregone conclusion. But there’s been just enough self-destruction along the way to make it interesting until he has both hands around the trophy.
As he catapults toward a likely final against Djokovic, are we going to see the best of Medvedev or the worst? The only guarantee is it’ll be worth tuning in to find out.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Daniil Medvedev's genius, worst impulses could decide title