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Catch Him If You Can: Daniil Medvedev's and Alexander Zverev's mission is clear
Along with Stefanos Tsitsipas, the ATP's Little Three are unquestionably talented and determined. But can they track down Novak Djokovic?
Published Sep 06, 2021
ZipRecruiter Player Resume: Daniil Medvedev
NEW YORK—Daniil Medvedev is a film buff. Last week at the US Open he explained that he’ll watch anything, from old-school classics to new releases in any genre, although his favorite is still the 2002 caper movie, Catch Me If You Can.
In an anxiety dream, the star of that movie would be Novak Djokovic, with Medvedev reprising the role of the FBI agent tasked with catching the elusive criminal. Medvedev, the No. 2 seed behind Djokovic at this US Open, has been trying to track down the Serbian and halt his depredations for about three years now—ever since the rail-thin, cerebral Russian cracked the Top 20 in the fall of 2018.
On Sunday, Medvedev knocked out Dan Evans with a superb exhibition of relentlessly intelligent play, backed by what has become one of the most effective serves in tennis. He moved into the quarterfinals, where he will play qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp—a surprise winner over No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman. That puts Medvedev one step closer to a second meeting with Djokovic in a Grand Slam final this year. Djokovic handled Medvedev with surprising ease in the Australian Open final, allowing him just nine games. Why should this time, on a similar hard court, be any different?
“Because what's different, that if we take two years ago, I was in one more Slam final, I won three more Masters, all these matches [were] tough matches against tough opponents,” Medvedev answered. “It's experience. I lost against Novak in [the] Australian Open final. If I will have one more Grand Slam final against him, will I do better? We don't know. Will I try to do better with the experience I had? For sure. That's what's different.”
Medvedev, though, isn’t the only player hot on Djokovic’s trail. Fellow “NextGen” alumni Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, seeded Nos. 3 and 4 at this event respectively, have also been in the hunt for some time now. While Tsitsipas was upset by rising star Carlos Alcaraz in the third round, Zverev is very much a threat to win the title. He’s in the opposite half of the draw as Medvedev.
For either man, the assignment is daunting. Djokovic is poised to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969, and just one of five players ever, to sweep all four major titles in the same year.
If Djokovic is beaten, it will mark the official end to the era utterly dominated by tennis’s legendary Big Three—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. The future of Federer and Nadal remains unclear at the moment; both are absent from this tournament, and struggling with advancing age and significant injury. It’s mind-blowing, but the Big Three have evenly shared a grand total of 60 major singles titles. It’s unlikely that the Little Three—composed of Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev—will threaten even a third of that record.
“The top three guys, I mean, they've been dominating for the past 15 or 20 years,” Zverev said shortly before this US Open began. “We might never see that again. Don't expect this group of guys to be the next Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. I don't think we are going to win 20 Grand Slams in the next 15 years each. That's not how it's going to go. I think we're going to split them among us maybe. The dominance those guys had is something you see once in a lifetime probably.”
That comment will not convert easily into fuel for the hype machine, but it’s a realistic assessment of where we are—and where we are isn’t that bad. Nobody in the Little Three has won a Grand Slam title yet, although all of them have come agonizingly close. They already have spirited rivalries with each other (the largest margin of superiority is Medvedev’s 6-2 edge on Tsitsipas; the closest is Zverev’s 5-4 advantage on Medvedev). The Little Three have a lot to offer—if and when Djokovic and his two cohorts get out of their road for good—and if they continue to enjoy some separation from age-group rivals like Matteo Berrettini, who lost a lopsided Wimbledon final to Djokovic this year.
Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev seem destined to hit the reset button on tennis rivalries. The verbal sparring between Zverev and Tsitsipas has been lively, even if the bone they were fighting over was toilet breaks. Much as we may love the Big Three, the increasing role of nostalgia in their trivalry isn’t going to move the game forward.
Tsitsipas is no longer a factor at this US Open. A lot of the capital he earned with his recent, heart-wrenching losses (he led Djokovic by two sets to none at the French Open, only to falter) has been squandered due to the widespread condemnation of his abuse of the bathroom-break rule. Repeated warnings and code violations for coaching (Tsitsipas is coached by his father, Apostolos) have also tarnished the image of the charismatic Greek, whose early success, philosophical musings, and diverse interests captivated fans.
The New York crowd was aware of the repeated charges that Tsitsipas’ bathroom breaks of up to eight minutes were a form of gamesmanship rather than a long answer to nature’s calling. They booed him during his second-round win. When asked about it, he said: “Some people don't understand. That's all. They don't understand. They haven't played tennis at a high level to understand how much effort and how difficult it is to do what we are doing.”
Other people, like Zverev and Medvedev, seem able to play at a comparably “high level” without needing to run off to the toilet for a lengthy period to change their outfits, but so be it. Tsitsipas could not have left Gotham happy about any aspect of his tournament.
Zverev came within two points of winning last year’s US Open (Dominic Thiem, the winner, is absent this year due to injury) in a virtually empty stadium due to the coronavirus pandemic. The lack of fans did not take the edge off his effort—or disappointment. He is sounding like a man on a mission at this event.
“I think in a way it fueled gas into the fire a little bit,” Zverev said of his heartbreaking loss last year. “I was two points away from winning it.” Zverev has practiced on Arthur Ashe Stadium a few times this year, and he said that just being on that court again triggered memories. “I was not far away last year, as you know. We'll see how it goes this year. But I'm very, very motivated.”
Motivation is one thing, justified confidence is quite another. Zverev has both. He appears to have raised his game to that next, ultimate level when he mastered Djokovic in the recent Tokyo Olympics, and went on to win the gold medal. He backed up that breakthrough performance in the Cincinnati Masters, winning the title despite the weight of his 0-6 career record there in main-draw matches. (Hard to believe, but true.)
Medvedev has comparably warm feelings about the US Open. This was his breakthrough event in 2019, which he still describes as an “amazing experience.” He added that the “energy” was different on that occasion, partly because he indulged in some antics that turned the crowd against him during his third-round win. All was forgiven, though, and on Sunday he warned, “I’m feeling I can do big things.”
If Djokovic is beaten, it will mark the official end to the era utterly dominated by tennis’s legendary Big Three.
Medvedev has shined at this tournament. Evans is a crafty, flashy player, but Medvedev had no trouble handling him, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. Evans matched John Isner and Reilly Opelka in first-serve speed (142 m.p.h.), but Medvedev still won five of his eight break points, while allowing Evans just two (only one was coveted).
Zverev, like Medvedev, is playing commanding tennis. But Djokovic is still far ahead of the field in the big picture, and no matter what happens in the next few days, he will be the heavy favorite in the majors next year. His new, young rivals are undeterred.
“Since I'm here, I want to say I'm going to try my best to keep it at 20 for all of them,” Medvedev said of the Big Three’s record. “I'm sure Novak wants 45 Slams, [to] play till 55. But we're here to try to keep up [to] his level and to beat him.”
Medvedev noted that Zverev—who faces Jannik Sinner on Monday afternoon—hit an “amazing level” to earn his win over Djokovic in Tokyo, despite being down a set and a break. He added, “We're here to not let him [Djokovic] win the US Open. If I talk just for myself, I want to win the US Open. I don't care if it's in the final against a qualifier or against Novak. I just want to win this tournament.”
Djokovic leads the pack, but the mission for the Little Three is clear, and perhaps closer to being successful than it appears. Catch him—if you can.