- Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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NEW YORK — One sleepless night in Wimbledon, Daniil Medvedev began to envision what he would do if he won the sport’s most fabled tournament.
The Russian knew if he did, he would have to come up with some sort of special celebration since so many past champions there have had timeless and iconic reactions on championship point.
“To not celebrate is going to be too boring, because I do [boring] all the time,” Medvedev thought to himself.
Medvedev didn’t win Wimbledon. But here he was on Sunday, in the US Open final, on the verge of spoiling history and pulling off one of the tennis’ greatest upsets by stopping Novak Djokovic from winning the calendar Grand Slam and an unprecedented 21st major.
After blasting a 129 mph service winner to break through and win his first Slam, Medvedev took a couple of steps before letting his body go limp, falling onto his left shoulder and laying there while sticking his tongue out.
“I like to play FIFA,” Medvedev said of the popular soccer video game. “It’s called the ‘dead fish’ celebration. If you know your opponent when you play FIFA, many times you’re going to do this [to annoy your opponent] … I talked to the [younger] guys in the locker room. They were like, that’s legendary [celebrating like that].”
It was only fitting that after beating one of tennis’ legends, Medvedev celebrated like a true gamer. The Russian put up video game-like service numbers, winning 81% of the points on his first serve and serving up 16 aces. He was broken just once in 15 service games against the greatest returner in the game.
Playing in front of an Arthur Ashe crowd that came to witness history, Medvedev beat Djokovic in many ways at his own game. Considered to be a chess master by his peers for the way he thinks and plays, Medvedev did something few do to Djokovic: He won the long grinding, soul-crushing rallies. Medvedev won 18 of the 25 rallies that lasted nine shots or more in the final.
Perhaps that is why Djokovic lost his cool in the fourth game of the second set when he smashed his racket three times, snapping it. Djokovic was annoyed earlier in the game that a critical point had to be played over after music accidentally was played right after he made a deep return on a Medvedev serve.
The reality, though, was that Djokovic knew on this day that he had to take advantage of every opportunity he earned. And Medvedev didn’t give him many.
It’s not a surprise Medvedev seemed to get everything back. That’s what he does. But to beat Djokovic time and time again on long baseline rallies is, well, legendary for someone not named Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
After Djokovic beat Alexander Zverev, one of Medvedev’s fellow Next Gen stars, in five sets in the semis, the Serbian said that he wanted his opponents to feel that intimidation factor Djokovic presents during the biggest moments of a match. Djokovic had earned that reputation by grinding out so many tight matches and always coming up big when the pressure was at its greatest.
Medvedev, though, was the one who kept coming up with big-time responses anytime momentum looked like it would change. With a crowd favoring Djokovic, Medvedev kept coming up with a big serve to hush the fans.
Djokovic didn’t nearly play his best tennis, his legs feeling the effects of not only a five-setter on Friday night, but also the increasing pressure of doing something no man has done since Rod Laver did so in 1969: win all four majors in the same year.
Djokovic was so dominant in the Slams this season that it made everyone forget what it’s like to see him look human. It also made everyone lose sight of just how good Medvedev is.
No one has been better on hard courts than the Russian, who leads the men’s tour in hardcourt wins (147), final appearances (17) and titles (12) since the start of 2018. Medvedev also was the US Open finalist in 2019, losing in five sets to Nadal.
But the gap entering Sunday was as wide as their previous Grand Slam final encounter, when Djokovic crushed the Russian 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 at the Australian Open final.
“I did beat him once in straight sets in London,” Medvedev said. “… Maybe he had a bad day [here]. If we talk about Australia, I definitely didn’t play my best there. But, again, probably people are going to say, ‘Well, Novak destroyed him.’ Whatever.
“He definitely was not at his best. We saw him playing better. The question is, if he would be, would I be able to [stay with] him? We can never know now. I’m just happy to win.”
As the two men stood during the trophy presentation, Medvedev told the remaining crowd and Djokovic something he had never said before to anyone.
“I first want to say sorry for you and the fans because we all know what he was going for today,” Medvedev said. “What you accomplished this year and throughout your career, I have never said this to anybody, but for me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”
Medvedev has long been considered one of the next great talents of the sport. But before beating Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, who was the first man born in the 2000s to play in a grand slam semifinal, Medvedev joked maybe he’s “not a Next Gen anymore.”
Djokovic confirmed he isn’t. Medvedev has arrived now with his first slam.
“The transition was inevitable,” Djokovic said of watching new stars start to win majors after Dominic Thiem won last year. “The older guys are still hanging on. We’re still trying to shine the light on the tennis world as much as we possibly can. … But the new generation, if you want to call them this way, is not new. It’s already current, established. Of course, they are going to take over. I think tennis is in good hands.”
Medvedev was able to expertly block out the crowd wishing for a Djokovic miracle at the end. But he did have a couple of things on his mind.
Sunday was Medvedev’s anniversary with his wife, Daria. Medvedev confessed that he had not bought a present and that he pretty much had to win this final as her gift. With that in the back of his mind and a cramp developing in the final game, Medvedev closed out Djokovic and slammed the door shut on history.
All there was left to do was execute the “dead fish” move.
Djokovic didn’t get his legendary win, but Medvedev got his unforgettable celebration.
“I got hurt a little bit,” Medvedev said of falling onto the hard court. “But I’m happy I made it legendary for myself.”
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