As Sunday evening turned into Monday morning in Russia, the two Russian men who have won a Grand Slam singles title had their eyes glued to their respective televisions. Both former World No. 1s, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin were texting one another as their countryman, Daniil Medvedev, took the tennis world on a roller-coaster ride in the US Open final. The 23-year-old battled from two sets and a break down to force a fifth set against Rafael Nadal before ultimately succumbing after nearly five hours in an epic clash against the Spaniard, who is now a 19-time Slam titlist.
“We exchanged text messages saying, ‘It could be an easy three sets’ after he lost the first set. But then after the third, we started thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be interesting!’” Kafelnikov told ATPTour.com. “And of course, especially in the beginning of the fifth set, we said, ‘He’s going to win it!’ because he had total control of the match in the beginning of the fifth set.”
A loss is a loss, but it didn’t feel like one for Medvedev. Not only did he come full circle with the crowd, which gave him an applause to remember during his post-match speech, but the Russian proved that he can go blow-for-blow under a lot of pressure against an all-time great.
“To turn it around from having lost the match and to turn it around to almost winning the match and to end up losing, it’s a bummer. But at the end of the day, it’s absolutely a victory,” Kafelnikov said. “He gained experience, I’m sure. I was hoping it was not going to be the last time he was going to participate in a Grand Slam final, but after what I saw yesterday, I’m absolutely sure he’s going to have his chances many, many times more.”
Before arriving in Flushing Meadows, Medvedev had never advanced past the fourth round of a major. But riding the form of a tremendous North American summer hard-court swing in which he reached the final in Washington and Montreal before triumphing in Cincinnati, the new World No. 4 kept his level up to put forth another great showing, this time in New York.
“That’s another huge step forward for Daniil. At 23 we had not seen him get past the fourth round. This tournament he showed, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a contender for a very long time now in the Grand Slams,’” Kafelnikov said. “Daniil believes now he can be a contender every time he steps on the court in the Slams. That kind of confidence is very important for every player.”
And as the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier said after his loss, he had no fear after the past couple of months, and he thought Nadal was the player with something to lose. Medvedev also defeated three-time Slam champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarters and ousted 2017 Nitto ATP Finals winner Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets in the semi-finals.
“Right now it’s obvious that he has another gear when he plays against [top] opponents, whom he is capable of beating. He showed it against Djokovic this summer and he showed it yesterday against Rafa, that he can bring it up a gear, he can raise his game to another level, which I was not able to see before,” Kafelnikov said. “This is a sign of a player who has matured, who has gotten better. He belongs to the Top 5 at the moment for sure.”
According to the new International Tennis Hall of Famer, it wasn’t that Medvedev did not have the game to finish off the Spaniard inside Arthur Ashe Stadium; he earned three break points to go up 2-0 in the decider. It was that Nadal brought certain intangibles to the court that the Russian had not yet earned.
“We all know that Rafa is a fighter. Every time he smells [a chance he is] like, ‘Okay, this is my chance’, he always takes the opportunity and after he got back into the match at 1-1 in the fifth set, he just said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to let the title go,’” Kafelnikov said. “From that point on I think what played a huge role in the fifth set is experience. Rafa was definitely more experienced than Daniil. At the end of the day, Daniil got what’s needed. He’s 23 years old, he will have many more opportunities in the future.”
Medvedev entered the match winless in four previous five-setters. But hanging in with the physicality of facing Nadal is an even tougher challenge. And although he lost, the fifth seed met that challenge and came ever so close to passing it.
“I was most impressed how he kept his physical condition to stay in the match for four and a half hours with Rafa,” Kafelnikov said. “In the past he showed that he was not physically capable of going the distance all the way, and yesterday I was really impressed that for four and a half hours he was battling against one of the toughest opponents of all time.”
They even broadcasted the match on one of Russia’s biggest television stations, and countless people back home watched as the five-time ATP Tour champion battled against the legendary lefty.
“I am very proud that he did fight, he did not give up after being two sets to love down and a break down in the third set. He has nothing to be ashamed of, he did as best as he could,” Kafelnikov said. “Everyone was watching from 11pm, midnight until four in the morning. Everyone was stuck to the TVs. We are really proud of what he did and what he gave us in terms of entertainment.”