OAKMONT, Pa. — Daniil Medvedev turned 17 last week, and Wednesday — three years to the day after losing to Grigor Dimitrov in the third round of the 2015 U.S. Open — he became the first Russian to reach the final of a major tennis tournament.
His victory over three-time champion Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals had roused a tiny, demoralized and largely overlooked country, and Medvedev’s inspiration has carried over as his star has climbed the ranks.
He is 18th in the world, a year removed from being ranked 203rd and doubted more than once to have a future in a sport much more focused on the old guard than on the youngsters from Russia, which has produced only three men in the top 100 before Medvedev.
It was those first U.S. Open defeats, Medvedev said, that planted the seeds for his current success.
“I got the message from back then,” he said. “It would be a perfect career if I lost in the third round.”
Medvedev surged in the second week of this year’s U.S. Open, building a 3-0 lead over Djokovic before dropping the next set. He won the final six games of the match, defeating Djokovic at his own game, playing aggressively and punishing the Serb’s weak backhand.
He is only the fourth qualifier to reach the final of a major tournament, and the first to win, in the Open era. He has won two of his four matches against Djokovic, both in tournament finals. The fifth ended with a retirement, after Djokovic strained his right elbow while defending in the fourth round.
Medvedev has progressed so far in this major without making a Grand Slam final for the second year in a row.
“No doubt I grew, but I also improved on my game,” he said after beating Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. “I have more confidence.”
Djokovic did not contest Medvedev’s explosive starts, or contest Medvedev’s closing output, but he played him well for the first two sets, saving two match points before finally succumbing.
“He comes out to kill every ball, and I couldn’t avoid that,” Djokovic said. “It’s nice to start slowly.”
The U.S. Open was a back-and-forth match, with all four games lasting more than seven minutes and at least one lasting more than 10. Medvedev won 91 percent of his first serves and was 56-of-56 in deciding points.
“Everyone knows how dangerous this Russian is,” Djokovic said, “and I’m just so happy I was able to overcome him.”
Medvedev returned 15 of the 18 aces that Djokovic served, 10 coming in the opening set, and converted three of four break points, winning the 12 points when he pressured Djokovic and reached the net five times.
Tall, imposing and powerful, Medvedev’s game and pose contrast sharply with the personality and finesse of the other semifinalist, Wawrinka. He played short, predominantly defensive shots, hitting no winners off a backhand all night long.
Wawrinka was returning the favor from 2012, when he shut out Djokovic in the semifinals after beating him in the quarterfinals. Medvedev was trailing Wawrinka 1-6, 2-0 in the first set when they retired.
The semifinal loss by Djokovic marked his seventh straight defeat in the U.S. Open semifinals. Djokovic has reached a career-high No. 2 in the world and is believed to be injury-free, with no signs of the elbow bother he had suffered at Wimbledon, at the Australian Open and at the French Open last year.
It is too early to talk about a Grand Slam title, Medvedev said Wednesday, but the grand challenge is unfolding before him. He is one of his country’s most popular players, and while he never encountered the same level of hype as Dimitrov or Alexander Zverev, he seemed to have managed the temperamental tennis of a larger player in a small package.
Medvedev plans to train hard and stay motivated in order to avoid a crash after a breakthrough year.
“We’re going to continue to work hard,” he said. “We’re going to focus on the things that have helped me get where I am today.”