When Daniil Medvedev was emerging through the junior ranks, he worried that his hot temper would scupper his hopes of reaching his formidable full potential.
Those fears have not been entirely unfounded. Ice-cool when he breezed so stylishly past Novak Djokovic in the final of the US Open on Sunday, Medvedev’s composed demolition of the world number one was the most mature triumph so far of a career which has occasionally been overshadowed by flashpoints ranging from the unedifying to the hilarious.
Last month, on his way to winning the National Bank Open in Canada, Medvedev asked Aurelie Tourte – the umpire at the centre of Djokovic’s infamous disqualification from Flushing Meadows last year – whether he should change his underwear in a corner.
Daniil Medvedev (R) cruised past Novak Djokovic in the US Open final, winning in straight sets
Eccentric Medvedev reversed his defeat to Djokovic in the Australian Open final in February
After being punished for talking during a point, he joked that opponent Alexander Bublik was laughing at the official, sharing the clip afterwards while correctly predicting that it would be ammunition for meme-makers.
Part of the unspoken requirement for the players who will succeed Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as trophy monopolisers is to match the power of their presence and charisma.
The ‘next gen’ of promising younger players are often accused of lacking the substance to match their style, the grit and moments of genius to match their carefully-cultivated social media profiles, slick personal style and fame-happy celebrity status.
Medverev has looked like a player to believe in. Now he has proved it against the man to beat.
His maverick tendencies give him that inimitability which makes the heavyweight three such a huge draw for fans. He is also not afraid to speak his mind.
The expressive 25-year-old is rarely shy to share his opinions with umpires during his matches
After losing in his first ever French Open quarter-final to Stefano Tsitsipas in June, Medvedev accused organisers of putting ‘Amazon before people’ in their scheduling of the match.
That defeat finished with him producing a petulant-yet-amusing underarm serve – a ‘very millennial shot’, as Tsitsipas quipped – after reacting to a scoreboard malfunction by warning the umpire that he would blame them should he lose.
At the Olympics in July, he removed his shirt in the sweltering heat, sat with an ice towel on his head and joined a chorus of players in criticising the timing of matches, as well as branding the briefness of changeovers a ‘joke’.
That was another eventful campaign for Medvedev. A strong favourite to win a medal, he asked who would take responsibility if he died in the heat and marked his departure, losing to Pablo Carreno Busta in straight sets in the quarter-finals, by violently obliterating his racket with a rage that even Djokovic might have been taken aback by.
Medvedev was involved in a bizarre incident when he threw coins at an umpire after a defeat
While popular Medvedev is known as an affable character on tour – witness Djokovic’s sincere pleasure in the identity of the champion on Sunday – there have been incidents that have rightly brought his character under scrutiny.
In 2016, he told fans he was ‘genuinely sorry’ after he was disqualified at the Savannah Challenger event for an offence that the United States Tennis Association confirmed had involved a racial element.
Then 20, he made remarks that were, at best, appallingly misjudged, including being caught on microphones telling an African-American official that she was ‘friends’ with his opponent of the same ethnic background.
The following year, after losing in five sets to Belgium’s Ruben Bemelmans, Medvedev bizarrely threw loose change at the chair of Mariana Alves at the end of a tempestuous five-set defeat.
Then a rising prospect, Medvedev issued an apology and admitted he had lessons to absorb
Medvedev denied that he had been accusing Alves of bias, acknowledging that he had invested no thought into the stunt which had ‘no meaning’ and vowing to apologise to her.
World number 15 Diego Schwartzmann is no friend of his, calling Medvedev a ‘moron’ and a ‘fool’ after perceiving him to have goaded Argentina fans during their match on the way to Russia’s impressive ATP Cup triumph last year.
There now seems to be a healthy level of catharsis to Medvedev’s expressive temperament, though. In Tokyo, he balanced his willingness to speak out about the exhausting conditions by adding that such a grand stage was no place to ‘cry about the heat’.
Perhaps the closest Medvedev has seemed to troubled was at this year’s Australian Open. In a stuttering performance against Filip Krajinovic in the third round, Medvedev lashed out at the guidance offered from the stands by coach Gilles Cervara, telling him to ‘just let me play’.
Medvedev can be a complicated character and coach Gilles Cervara has helped to guide him
Cervera appeared to make a hasty exit from the sidelines on that occasion. The pair have an excellent understanding of how to bring the best out of each other, which is almost certainly essential given Medvedev’s complexities as a character.
Years ago, Cervera joined Medvedev on part of a roadtrip he made across the US to a tour event in Canada.
Medvedev cannot remember whether he was a qualifier at the tournament and has even admitted that he is unsure why Cervera joined him on the mammoth trip, yet a conversation they had on the way proved formative.
Never one for overstatement, Medvedev was reluctant to describe the chat as life-changing when he spoke about it last week. He describes it as ‘special’, and it clearly had a profound effect on him, as well as steeling his bond with Cervera.
Medvedev has had a mixed relationship with the US Open audience, swearing at them in 2019
America was the place for another experience that has defined the player and man Medvedev is today.
In 2019, he managed to pack an altercation with a ballboy, a swipe at an umpire and a raised middle finger to the stands into a theatrical flourish worthy of the pantomime villain he instantly became to the unimpressed crowds.
The role was one Medvedev relished, archly telling them that their jeers had given him the energy to advance to the final, where he lost a five-set thriller to Nadal.
It would take a leap of cynicism to find anything nasty in Medvedev’s actions at that tournament, and by the time of the final he had already won over many of the critics he earned earlier on – with some now joking that his path to becoming champion began in that volatile campaign.
His theatrics towards the crowd heightened the drama and carried a pleasing air of playfulness
Since then, Medvedev has begun working with psychologist Francisca Dos, who was inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium alongside the likes of Maria Sharapova – the last Russian to win a Grand Slam, in Paris in 2012 – to witness his controlled crushing of Djokovic.
Medvedev’s wife, Daria, has also been key to his personal growth, lending him a sympathetic ear when he needs to talk in between indulging his love of films during his days off.
‘Catch me if you Can’ is his movie of choice, admiring the performances of Tom Hanks and Leonardo di Caprio in the lead roles.
As he reduced Djokovic to a supporting character in his stunning win to take the title, what stood out was Medvedev’s awareness and empathy as his rival dealt with his understandably high emotions after missing out on his Grand Slam dream.
RUSSIAN GRAND SLAM CHAMPIONS
Medvedev is the fourth Russian to win the US Open and the sixth to lift a Grand Slam title overall.
US Open: Marat Safin (2000), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004), Maria Sharapova (2006)
Wimbledon: Sharapova (2004)
French Open: Yevgeny Kafelnikov (1996), Anastasia Myskina (2004), Kuznetsova (2009), Sharapova (2012)
Australian Open: Kafelnikov (1999), Safin (2005), Sharapova (2008)
Appearing to tell his entourage to keep their celebrations muted, Medvedev simply returned to his chair – albeit after lying comically still on the court to underline his shock at his first major title – and allowed Djokovic the space and respect he deserved.
Djokovic has had a magnificent 2021. As he listened to Medvedev charmingly tell Daria about his plans for their third wedding anniversary present in his speech, the 20-time Grand Slam winner will have been plotting more glories next year.
Federer’s future is in doubt, but Nadal seems determined to return. Medvedev’s is only the second Grand Slam title of the last 19 not to have been won by one of the established trio, following Dominic Thiem’s US Open win last year, which he achieved in the wake of Djokovic’s disqualification and with Nadal and Federer absent.
Thiem has gone on to achieve precious little by his high standards this year, demonstrating that there are no guarantees that Medvedev will become number one while the modern greats are still competing.
But when he hits the electric form he found on Sunday, it is irresistible not to consider Medvedev as the next in line. With his unorthodox forehands and backhands and pummeling groundstrokes, this astute tactician is a puzzle that any player will struggle to solve when he is at his brilliant best.
After learning more lessons than he might have liked in his continuing search to master himself, Medvedev’s emergence as the man most likely to dominate the sport should be a source of considerable excitement for fans.
Even if the second Russian man to win a major this century hits more bumps in the road, there is certain to be abundant entertainment along the way. The stand-out contender now has a title to reward his hard-won ascendancy.