Two summers ago I interviewed an engaging young Russian who had just broken into the world’s top 100. Generating plenty of power from his lean 6ft 6in frame, Daniil Medvedev also moved well for a tall man and possessed a serve that, while not as heavy as some, nevertheless appeared penetrating.
Presciently, Medvedev told me: “It’s a step-by-step process, with every match you get the experience, you become less tight when you go out there, more and more you play guys that are top 50, top 30, top 20 and you just feel like you are a part of it.”
He’s certainly part of it now. Medvedev has been the most successful player of the American swing in the build-up to the US Open, reaching the final of the Rogers Cup Masters in Montreal (where he lost to Rafael Nadal), then winning the Cincinnati Masters, beating Novak Djokovic along the way.
It’s lifted Medvedev to No5 in the world, and made him the most hotly tipped outsider for the US Open title. Of course, that still makes him a long shot – the big three of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer will remain firm favourites to take the honours. You have to go back three years to find a grand-slam winner outside those three, and even then it was Stan Wawrinka, who has won all the Slams other than Wimbledon.
The younger generation, in the shape of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Karen Khachanov, while great to watch and firmly established in the world’s top 10, haven’t yet been able to produce the consistency that could carry them to a grand-slam title. Could Medvedev get there first? In 2017 he told me with a laugh that “the physical is not the best part of my game, though I am trying my best with what I have”.
Now, though, Medvedev is confident in his ability to run, and keep running. In a recent interview he said that he was prepared to outlast everyone in long rallies and just keep going as long as was necessary. He will need all that perseverance if he is going to make his mark as although he has a relatively kind-looking opening couple of rounds, he is in the same quarter as Djokovic, and the Serb looks determined and focused on closing the gap on Federer’s all-time Grand Slam record.
Where else could the challenge come from? Zverev and Tsitsipas both face horrible draws, while Rafa opens up against John Millman, who famously beat Federer last year. The Fed could well make the final, but if he can’t beat Djokovic on grass in the Wimbledon final, it seems counterintuitive to suggest he could do so on a surface which favours the Serb.
The US Open isn’t everyone’s favourite tournament – it’s noisy, disruptive and so vast that fans can feel a long way from the action. But it remains a truism that it is usually won by the best player in the world, and that is currently Novak Djokovic.