Daniil Medvedev tuned out a chorus of boos against Stan Wawrinka to reach the U.S. Open semifinals. But his recent run is hardly surprising.
NEW YORK — Tennis fans are a decorous bunch. Etiquette requires clapping for all good shots, no matter who hit them. Cheering for unforced errors is a faux pas. Welcoming a player to the court with applause before a Grand Slam quarterfinal? That’s a given.
Unless the player is Daniil Medvedev and the Grand Slam is the 2019 U.S. Open.
The crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday did their best to let Medvedev know they wanted the other guy to win. You know, Stan Wawrinka—the guy who has won this tournament before, the guy who beat Novak Djokovic on Saturday, the guy with a one-hand backhand somehow as effective as it is elegant. They showered Medvedev with boos from the moment he walked onto the court. They cheered for each of his 12 double faults.
This time, the lanky Russian seemed to hardly notice, overcoming a pulled quadriceps and a partisan crowd to beat Wawrinka in a truly odd encounter. First it looked like it would last one set, with the most likely being a Medevev retirement…until he found a way to win that set, and the next one too. At that point, it looked destined to be three-and-out. Then Wawrinka won the third set to stay alive, and it looked for all the world like it was going five. Alas, it went four, with the 23-year-old prevailing 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to reach his first major semifinal.
“First two sets, I didn’t have any emotions because in my mind I was like, ‘I’m losing the match because of my leg,” Medvedev said after the match. “I’m going to either retire of just come back to the locker room in one hour as the loser of the match.”
He returned about an hour and a half later, as the winner. To anyone who’s been paying attention to tennis this summer, Medvedev’s run is anything but a shocking development. The world No. 5 has played the best tennis of his life during the U.S. hard-court swing, reaching back-to-back finals in Washington D.C. and Toronto before winning his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He entered this week as the oddsmakers’ fourth favorite to win, behind…well, you know who.
That he’s here isn’t surprising. It’s how he got here.
Over the past five days, Medvedev has taken something of a heel turn. Heretofore a quiet, inoffensive presence on tour, he made himself enemy No. 1 of New York’s tennis fans on Friday night. Put simply, he lost his cool. In a third-round match on Louis Armstrong against Feliciano Lopez, Medvedev was given a code violation for aggressively swiping a towel out of a ballperson’s hand. (Never disrespect the ballperson!)
He then not-so-subtly flashed the finger, which he surely knew was going to be picked up by one of ESPN’s 26,000 cameras. After the jumbotron showed him flipping the bird, the crowd let him have it, booing him throughout the rest of the four-set victory. It reached another level when he gave his post-match interview, which doubles as a Ph.D.-level dissertation in the Art of Trolling.
“Thank you all guys, because your energy tonight give me the win,” he said amidst aggressive jeering. “Because if you were not here, guys, I would probably lose the match because I was so tired, I was cramping yesterday, it was so tough on me to play. So I want all of you to know, when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.”
He was at it again after beating qualifier Dominik Koepfer on Sunday night: “You guys, being against me, you gave me so much energy to win. Thank you. Guys, continue to give me this energy. You’re the best.”
Medvedev has since softened his antagonistic rhetoric. He was genuinely contrite in Sunday’s post-match press conference, essentially saying he feels bad about his antics and that his on-court persona does not match his off-court personality. On Tuesday, had every opportunity to escalate things when Tom Rinaldi told him to address the crowd directly. He didn’t bite: “I’m sorry, and thank you,” he said. The crowd gave its approval. Who doesn’t love some self-awareness?
He also won't have to play ultra-villain in his semifinal match on Friday. Had Roger Federer beaten Grigor Dimitrov, and Rafael Nadal avoided a shocking upset to Diego Scwhartzman or his eventual semifinal opponent, Medvedev would have been the only guy standing between the dream: a Federer-Nadal final, featuring the two best players in men's tennis history and the two most popular players in today's game, playing for the first time at the U.S. Open.
It wasn't to be. Dimitrov pulled off the stunner, and now all that stands between Medvedev and the final is the world's No. 78 player. But now Dimitrov assumes the role of David to Medvedev's Goliath, and we all know that no one roots for Goliath. That hasn't seemed to bother Medvedev thus far. Sometimes the villain wins. Sometimes the villain keeps on winning.