First, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic retired during the third set of his fourth-round match. Then, five-time champion Roger Federer fell in the quarter-finals. Suddenly, second seed Rafael Nadal was the favourite to win the US Open.
But according to ESPN analyst and former World No. 4 Brad Gilbert, Nadal never getting ahead of himself is what has put him on the doorstep of a 19th Grand Slam title, and what makes him the favourite on Sunday against first-time major finalist Daniil Medvedev.
“Rafa is a huge favourite, but the greatness of Rafa is that he doesn’t take that for granted,” Gilbert told ATPTour.com. “Even in the quarters, guys are saying this and that. The beauty of him is he’s thinking about the first game, first point tomorrow and going from there.”
Nadal played Medvedev for the first time one month ago in the final of the Coupe Rogers. It was the Russian’s first ATP Masters 1000 final, and the legendary lefty took full advantage in a 6-3, 6-0 triumph.
“I think he did a great job in Canada of breaking down Medvedev’s forehand. The guy doesn’t miss forehands, but Rafa’s ball is different. It’s heavy, it’s a higher spin. He broke down [Matteo] Berrettini’s backhand big time in the semis. Big time,” Gilbert said. “The greatest thing about Rafa is that he’s an amazing tactician. Pulled it out out of nowhere against [Diego] Schwartzman to win the first set, a high looping shot. Did it a couple times in a row to win the second set. He waits for the right moment sometimes to use tactics. That’s the great thing about him, and he’s just relentless… sometimes you forget if he’s 5-0 up or 5-0 down. He’s just working hard for the next point.”
Nadal has done a tremendous job of holding his serve throughout the fortnight, winning all but six of his service games at a rate of 92 per cent (67/73). None of the seven players who had a better winning percentage in their service games this tournament advanced past the third round.
“[He just has to] continue to execute like he’s been doing. He’s been doing an amazing job all tournament being aggressive off of his serve. He hasn’t really not been aggressive on his serve this entire tournament,” Gilbert said. “And he’s been really so strong on first serve, first shot, taking care of serve.”
Analysing Medvedev’s Path To Victory
Medvedev is the fifth seed, and he will climb to a career-high No. 4 in the ATP Rankings on Monday. Although he won just three games against Nadal in Montreal, the 23-year-old showed his mental resilience by bouncing back to win his maiden Masters 1000 crown in Cincinnati at the Western & Southern Open. So Medvedev, who leads the ATP Tour with 50 wins this year, is clearly in top form.
“I think the key for him to win, I’ll say [it has to be] a lot like the first set of Berrettini. Berrettini got to a breaker when it didn’t look like there would be any chance. He saved all six break points, didn’t have one look to break serve, but yet found his way to a breaker and had two set points,” Gilbert said. “Scoreboard pressure in the first set will be crucial, and exactly like what Anderson needed in the final a couple years ago and didn’t get it. I think that’s absolutely crucial for Medvedev, to get scoreboard pressure in the first set.”
Against Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals, Medvedev was fairly content to counterpunch and fend off the Bulgarian’s offence. That eventually wore down the first-time US Open semi-finalist. But in the Cincinnati semis against Djokovic, Medvedev was rolled in the first set when he did not come out firing.
“He looked a little bit physically spent and the next thing you know he was like, ‘What the hell, I’m not winning any points on my second serve’, and he started going two first serves and then started playing uber aggressive. It paid off,” Gilbert said of that Djokovic victory.. “Maybe something unpredictable [would work]. I’m not saying go two first serves again, but you never know. Unpredictability is one of his best qualities. He pulls back, and then he’s aggressive. But I don’t think he can get away with pulling back against Rafa.
“It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but pulling back against Rafa and Fed, who are so dominant in the middle of the court, is probably one of the most difficult things to do.”
Medvedev does not have a single weapon that sets him apart on the ATP Tour. He has proven his ability to deliver powerful and accurate serves, go backhand to backhand in rallies with Djokovic, and play defence you would expect from a player a foot shorter than him. Gilbert thinks he’s among the Top 3 movers in the world today, and the greatest mover in the sport’s history 6’6” and above. But the analyst also believes the Russian has an intangible that stands out.
“The most amazing and impressive thing about Medvedev, it reminds me so much of Andy Murray when I was coaching him in 2006. Everybody would say, ‘How does this guy win?’ Nothing adds up. You look at his stats sometimes and he has more unforced errors than winners, double faults,” Gilbert said. “He has a great ability to pull back a lot in sets, where he wins a lot of points when he doesn’t really do a lot and then he’ll play sneaky aggressive when he has to. Most impressively, he finds a way to win.”
And although Gilbert was clear in declaring Nadal the favourite, giving Medvedev just a 17.17 per cent chance to win, he does not think Medvedev is walking on the court thinking of anything but finding a way to lift the trophy.
“He’s not going out on the court and thinking, ‘I have nothing to lose. No, I want to win. How am I going to figure out a game plan to put myself in a position [to win],’” Gilbert said. “It’s two guys enter, one guy leaves. You have to think about from the coach, from the player, it doesn’t matter what people say, ‘underdog’. The only thing that matters is the dimensions of the court and what you can do to make progress.
“It’s just about winning one game at a time and executing a game plan against one person. In these draws, you don’t need to beat 127 other guys. You’ve just got to beat somebody every other day. Keep it simple, think about your game plan and Xs and Os.”
Source: ATP World Tour