Give Daniil Medvedev a partisan crowd, and he’ll play with deadly venom.
The ice-cool Russian made his run to his first grand slam final in New York two years ago as public enemy number one, egging crowds to taunt and boo as he responded in kind with a couple of birds.
And no, not the bald-headed kind.
Medvedev drew upon that experience in front of a Greek-leaning Rod Laver Arena to blitz fan favourite Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4 6-2 7-5 and book a final date with reigning Melbourne champion Novak Djokovic.
“I would say to win a slam, especially against … Novak, is already a big motivation, and I don’t think there is anything that can make it bigger,” Medvedev said.
Medvedev, who extended his winning streak to 20 with the straight-sets result, outfoxed Tsitsipas with suffocating depth and by uncannily placing his body in the path of the Greek’s shots.
But it wasn’t without one glimpse that Medvedev, despite a near-robotic ability to hit clean, is human.
Ahead 3-1 in the third, the Russian surrendered a break and was wobbly before threading a match-winning backhand pass – labelled one of the shots of the tournament.
“I wanted [the crowd] to recognise me .. I think [it was] one of my best shots in my career,” Medvedev said.
“My legs were facing the other way of the court because I didn’t have time, so I have no idea how I made this, and I was really happy about it.”
Although Medvedev entered the match wielding a 5-1 head-to-head lead over Tsitsipas, the pair’s rivalry started out hot-blooded after a fiery first meeting in Miami.
“He’s a small kid who doesn’t know how to fight,” sledged the Russian in swampy March heat in 2018.
However, the fifth-seeded Tsitsipas, entering the match hoping to be the first Greek player to ever reach a major final, had another weapon up his sleeve: the crowd.
Dozens of blue-and-white flags were dotted through the half-capacity Rod Laver Arena crowd and chants of ‘Opa!’ and ‘Hellas!’ rang out from all corners as he stepped up to serve first.
But their man, sporting locks reminiscent of 80s great Bjorn Borg, was on the back foot from the fifth game. The Greek couldn’t handle Medvedev’s irrepressible rally balls.
As if he were a wiry 6-foot-6 spider, Medvedev hit the ball like it’s on a Teflon-coated string, luring his opponent into traps they’re not aware of until he lands a killer blow.
Two of them, in the form of backhand winners, clinched the first break.
“Let me tell you he’s a player who has unlocked pretty much everything in the game. It’s like he’s reading the game really well,” Tsitsipas said post-match.
But the partisan spectators lifted after Tsitsipas threaded a forehand pass two games later, breathing signs of life into the Greek, who appeared dispirited by his opponent’s chess master-like ways.
Medvedev, for his part, held firm amid the rowdy crowd.
He would toy with Tsitsipas’ backhand and rally in his Medvedevesque way, prodding and poking until he found an opening or a Greek error.
By the match’s end, he would win 17 of 22 rallies that lasted longer than nine shots.
Heading into set two, Medvedev continued grinding down the Tsitsipas backhand with consistent depth as the Greek was sent to deuce on his opening game. But he broke out of the deadlock with a swinging forehand volley that whipped the partisan crowd into a frenzy.
The Russian’s clinical labour from metres behind the baseline bore more fruit in the fifth seed’s next service game. An 18-shot rally showing off his stockpile – the uncanny anticipation of his opponent’s next shot, the improvisation on his forehand – went his way.
Then, he whipped out a trio of forehand winners: One strangling inside-out forehand, one jumping lasso, and one ripping down the line to stamp his authority.
At times, it was tough to watch.
The usual grace and flow of Tsitsipas’ play, ripping winners with his one-handed backhand and nous at the net, was replaced by errors. To be fair, he appeared taxed by his five-set heroics against Nadal on Wednesday.
But the crowd was there with him, rousing with a ‘When I say Stefanos, you say Tsitsipas’ chant.
It was after he lost serve to love at 5-2 that he thumped a water bottle into the ground – exploding on impact – that incurred a violation and gifted a two-set advantage.
Medvedev’s craftsmanship willed him to an early break in the third and, with the match on his racquet, he froze.
The crowd sensed Tsitsipas’s shotmaking was rising, and after breaking once, threatened to solve the Russian’s intelligent game.
But from 4-3, Medvedev wheeled off three games, a 208 kilometre per hour second serve the exclamation point on a confident performance.
Medvedev’s now beaten each of the other members of the top 10, barring an injury-riddled Roger Federer, in his unbeatable stretch. He also has a titanic five-set grand slam final loss under his wings.
Tongues are wagging around the Russian, for all the right reasons, and he may already be thinking one or two steps ahead about a mind-boggling breakout performance under Sunday night lights.