NEW YORK — From the moment world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz lifted the Wimbledon trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic in an epic five-set thriller in July, tennis fans have been manifesting a rematch in New York. And for most of the past two weeks, their meeting in Sunday’s US Open final seemed inevitable. Djokovic did his part Friday, taking the first semifinal in straight sets over American Ben Shelton 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) and booking his spot in the final.
But 2021 US Open champion Daniil Medvedev had other plans and ended the 20-year-old’s run toward a second-straight US Open title with a 7-6 (3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win in Friday’s second semifinal. With the victory, Medvedev set up a rematch of his own against Djokovic, who he defeated here two years ago to win his first and only major title.
So, what went wrong for Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz? Here are four takeaways from his exit.
Medvedev won the mental game.
Throughout Friday’s match, the 27-year-old Russian appeared calm and emotionless, even in that tight third set. During changeovers, Medvedev sat with an almost tranquil demeanor until the last moment, while Alcaraz jumped up early, bounced around his side of the court and hit balls against the wall behind the baseline.
In the first set tiebreak, Alcaraz uncharacteristically lost his cool and came close to smashing his racket against the court. “After 3-all in the tiebreak, I lose my mind,” Alcaraz said after the match. “I make three or four points without control. I didn’t think. I totally lose my mind on that set. I was fighting for 50 minutes and then, for four points, lose my mind. It was really tough for me to handle it. In the second set, I didn’t come back.”
Medvedev pounced any time he saw Alcaraz give in to his emotions. That, as much as his net game, was part of the plan. “In sport, I believe the energy you have, the determination, that makes a huge difference,” Medvedev’s coach, Gilles Cervara, said after the match. Cervara said he told Medvedev to play aggressive, attacking tennis against Alcaraz, but that Medvedev’s mindset was just as important in earning the upset. “To be aggressive is one part of the strategy,” Cervara said. “But it’s also your mental game. It’s not just hitting the ball hard.”
Alcaraz couldn’t find an answer for Medvedev’s much-improved game.
Medvedev faced Alcaraz twice this year and didn’t take a set off him. “I lost two times easy to [Carlos],” Medvedev said. “Before the match, I said I needed to play 11 out of 10 to win today. I played 12 out of 10.” Alcaraz agreed that Medvedev was the craftier player Friday.
“I thought that, right now, I am a better player to find solutions when the match is not going in the right direction for me,” Alcaraz said. “But, you know, after this match, I’m gonna change my mind. I’m not mature enough to handle these kind of matches. I have to learn about it.” Alcaraz then took his time before describing what it was about Medvedev’s game that was so difficult to counter this time.
“He played with more speed in his shots,” Alcaraz said. “The forehand running was great today. With the slice in the previous matches, it helped me to find my own game, but today I couldn’t. He found great directions with his shots, made no mistakes and had a great serve today. He played a great match.”
Medvedev’s service game was stellar.
In the first two sets, Medvedev was 88 percent on his first serves, while Alcaraz was not receiving well, and had to work much harder throughout the match to hold on to his serve. Alcaraz also failed to capitalize on 8-of-9 break point opportunities, while Medvedev broke Alcaraz three times in seven attempts.
“He’s one of the best returners on the tour,” Alcaraz said. “It is amazing how he can return from the back of the court, really deep and really powerful. And when I do serve-and-volley, he always finds the passing shot from, you know, from his house.”
That last comment drew a round of laughter from the room, as well as from Alcaraz. “I have to find the right serve every time, and I have to serve better to be able to stay in a good position after the serve,” he said. “I will do it in the next game.”
Medvedev played without pressure. Alcaraz succumbed to his.
From the opening question at media day on Aug. 25, the talk around this year’s men’s draw has been whether the Djokovic-Alcaraz rematch would take place and who — of the two of them — would take the title. That rubbed some players the wrong way.
“It’s a great story,” Medvedev said that day. “But then the tournament starts and hopefully we can — when I say ‘we’, I mean me personally or someone else — we’re going to try to beat them and stop them from playing each other.”
Despite Medvedev being the No. 3 player in the word, having a stellar history in New York — including a title and a 26-0 record after winning the opening set — he came into Friday’s match as an underdog. And he played like one. Alcaraz, on the other hand, was all but expected to take the title. Alcaraz has said he’s a different player this year, more mature and able to handle big moments. But after his loss to Medvedev, he said he still has a lot of growing to do.
“I’m gonna think about this loss for a long time,” Alcaraz said. “I want to learn from it. These kinds of matches help you a lot to be better and grow up. I have to talk with my team, with Juan Carlos, about how I can be better.”