This article first appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to see the full digital edition.
Every great drama, whether it’s movies, television or sports, needs a hero and a villain; protagonists and antagonists.
While we all want to play the part of the hero, every great story needs the “anti-hero”. At the 2019 U.S. Open, Daniil Medvedev embraced that role, and although the word villain could be seen as hyperbolic when referring to this situation, the tall, lanky Russian had his fun drawing the ire of the New York crowd.
“It’s probably the most electric atmosphere I’ve played in my whole entire life,” Medvedev said at one point during the tournament last year. “Sometimes you play a first round of an ATP tournament where there’s 50 people watching you on a small court. This is completely different. I’m trying to take this electricity, feed from it, and that’s helped me a lot these last two matches.”
The back-and-forth exchanges between Medvedev and the crowd, despite including Medvedev flashing the middle finger to the crowd, were in good fun, and really began during his third-round matchup with veteran Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Medvedev ripped a towel away from one of the ball men after losing a point in that match, which drew boos from the crowd and a code violation from the umpire. A little after that is when he delivered that middle finger, which officials did not see, but the crowd and the cameras certainly did.
“I caused it,” Medvedev said. “I’m not happy about it, but I have to deal with it, and I deal with it in my own way. The priority for me is to win the match, and if I have to win it by taking all the energy the crowd has, even if it’s against me, I have to do it. I’m there as a sportsman, and my first goal is to win the match.”
The dance between crowd and player continued throughout the tournament, and with each match he won, the more he embraced the new role he had found, and the success he got from engaging with the New York audience.
“They kind of don’t understand that they shouldn’t do it,” said Medvedev. “I feed from this energy, and that's what I’m doing this tournament.”
In a sport like tennis it can be difficult to properly harness your emotions and use them to benefit yourself while on court, but Medvedev was able to do just that. The 24-year-old from Moscow turned that negativity into positive play, and it was then that he won over the fans.
“It requires a lot of force and strength inside of you,” he said in regards to dealing with the crowd. “It could easily make you go even more mad, and then you lose the match because you’re not concentrating anymore.”
But Medvedev didn’t lose many matches last year. In fact, he won more matches than anyone else on the ATP tour last year, a chunk of them coming at the U.S. Open in front his favorite audience.
“During my match I was completely focused. After the match, I engaged a little bit with the crowd. But we all know how New York crowd can be. It’s probably the most electric crowd in the world, I think,” said Medvedev. “Especially, I mean, playing this week on big courts, I could feel it. Today I was just engaging with the crowd and hopefully it was fun for them and for me. As I said, it gave me a lot of energy to win.”
That relationship, along with Medvedev’s relentless defense and unbelievable shot- making, helped him put together his best showing at a major as he reached last year’s finals. And while he lost a five-set epic to Rafael Nadal, he walked away from Queens after posting the best two weeks of his career.
“Because of the crowd, I was fighting like hell,” he said during his runner-up speech. “In the third set, in my mind, I was already thinking what to say in the speech. But I was fighting and I didn’t give up.”
He would carry that momentum into the rest of his season, winning titles in St. Petersburg and Shanghai after he left the United States, and the Russian has not missed a beat in 2020. One of the brightest young stars in the game, Medvedev has become a mainstay atop the rankings.
When it was announced that the 2020 U.S. Open would go ahead, but with no fans, perhaps no player was more disappointed than the one who had developed a sort of rapport with the New York crowd a year ago.
“Actually, it’s really sad there is no crowd this year,” said Medvedev. “I think it would be funny to see if they would be cheering me on or not. Hopefully yes.”
Despite not being able to fuel off of the spectators, Medvedev once again looked sharp at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2020. He won his first five matches all in straight sets to set up a semifinal clash with Dominic Thiem, second-seed Austrian who was the only player in the tournament who looked as good as Medvedev had through the first five rounds.
It was the semifinal that most people thought should be the final, and Thiem struck first blood with breaks in the first set, helped out by a poor call during one of Thiem’s service games, and went on to out play the big Russian in two tiebreakers to advance to the finals.
It was a disappointing end to Medvedev’s time in New York, but there is no doubt he has found some comfort underneath the bright lights of New York, and will look to carry his good play throughout the rest of the season.
“It was sad to play without a crowd. We love playing for the fans. We love playing with the fans. As we can see last year, even sometimes when they are against you, you can interact with them, which is good,” he said with a smile on his face during his post- match press conference. “I’m definitely more happy than disappointed. I can tell you honestly, two months ago if someone would tell me I would make the semis of the U.S. Open, I would be super happy because I was not feeling great about my game, great about my physical shape...I showed some great level. Even talking about [the semifinals]. Super happy about my level. Disappointed with the loss, but a great experience; great result. Looking forward to the next tournaments.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org