The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd likes a winner and so it was somewhat symbolic that in the space of two weeks and just a few matches Daniil Medvedev went from playing amid boos to taking the US Open acclaim. Indeed, this was a watershed Grand Slam for the Russian. The tournament that didn’t quite turn him into a winner, but certainly a contender.
Medvedev had Rafael Nadal on the ropes in Sunday’s final. The 23-year-old is unorthodox in his manner and used that creativity to fight back from two sets down to take the match the distance. At the start of the fifth set, it was Medvedev who seemed to have the momentum behind him. In the end, Nadal found a way to grind out the win.
Nadal’s victory means that it has now been over three years since a male player under the age of 30 won a Grand Slam (Andy Murray, Wimbledon 2016), underlining the stranglehold ‘The Big Three’ have on the elite level of tennis. Medvedev, however, might just have crashed the party even if Sunday’s ticker-tape wasn’t for him.
The breakthrough of the so-called ‘Next Gen’ has been discussed for years. Sascha Zverev looked to be on the brink of joining the elite level of the men’s game after winning last year’s ATP Tour Finals. The German beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the final, also seeing off Roger Federer in the semis, but this turned out to be a false dawn.
Zverev has since endured a dismal season, reaching the quarter finals of the French Open, but only making the fourth round of both the Australian Open and the US Open. His first round exit at Wimbledon marked a nadir for the German who looks as far away from a Grand Slam breakthrough as ever.
Stefanos Tsitsipas made the final four of the Australian Open, but then failed to make it past the round of 16 at Roland Garros and just like Zverev suffered a humiliating first round exit at Wimbledon. The Greek’s slump in form continued into the American hard court season, crashing out of the US Open first round. While Tsitsipas started his year as the irrepressible new face of men’s tennis, he ended it drained and seemingly lacking in direction.
This is the sort of thing Medvedev must avoid. There is still the Asian swing of the hard court season to come before the Paris Masters and then the ATP Tour Finals later in the year. The Russian cannot afford to take his foot off the pedal because it’s this sort of relentless consistency that marks out the best from the rest.
Medvedev’s performances at Flushing Meadows have lifted him to fourth place in the ATP rankings. This is a ranking both Tsitsipas and Zverev have held in recent times. However, the pressure of being anointed men’s tennis’ next big thing weighed heavy on them.
The Russian’s shoulders must be broader. They were broad enough to take the boos of Flushing Meadows and broad enough to sustain what Nadal threw at him for the majority of Sunday’s US Open final. The biggest challenge of all, though, will be staying at the top long enough to take that final step.