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US Open men’s semifinal: For Daniil Medvedev, a match with Carlos Alcaraz is a match made in hell

After fighting intense heat to storm past eighth seed and fellow countryman Andrey Rublev 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 on Wednesday, Daniil Medvedev, No. 3 in the world, sets up an unfavourable clash between the last two US Open champions, as he takes on Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinal of the US Open.

Following their back-to-back epics at Wimbledon and Cincinnati, the men’s draw at US Open has played out as a near-two-week-long build-up exercise to another high-stakes meeting between Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic in the final. Medvedev, alongside talented young American Ben Shelton who will play Djokovic in the other semifinal, is then tasked with spoiling the party.

But, after five solid physical and technical wins, even if he has momentum on his side, it is a matchup that is not, given how Alcaraz handed out debilitating defeats to him at Wimbledon and Indian Wells this year; the Russian’s defence-first approach no match for the complete armoury of attack-first weapons in the Spaniard’s tennis arsenal.

Alcaraz, playing late into the night on Wednesday, breezed past Germany’s Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, without being nearly at his best. And he did not need to be. The Spaniard may have made only around half (57%) of his first serves and hit 34 unforced errors as compared to 29 winners, but stamped his authority at each of the important junctions of the match, converting each of his four break points, and saving each of the five he faced.

US Open men Carlos Alcaraz, of Spain, serves to Alexander Zverev, of Germany, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, in New York. AP/PTI

If Zverev ever contended with Alcaraz, the World No.1 would burst into an extra gear, finding more zip on his groundstrokes from the baseline, deft touches at the net, low slices, or deceptive drop shots. By routinely defeating a player who came within two points of winning the US Open three years ago, in what was a less-than-convincing performance, Alcaraz gave another reminder of how far ahead both he and Djokovic are from the rest of the chasing pack.

In all ‘best-of-the-rest’ conversations, however, Medvedev will be staking claim. In a season enthralled by the top two’s rivalry, the Russian has cemented his place as the World No.3 with five titles, including two Masters 1000s, and a second successive major semifinal.

It is against Alcaraz that Medvedev finds his ceiling though. Hard courts may be his best surface, and the US Open his best Major, but no opponent has made his game feel more one-dimensional than the Spaniard, who is able to use his brawny groundstrokes – especially on the forehand side – and varied playing style, to take control of their matches.

Medvedev builds his game around solid defence, building a wall and getting as many balls back into play to wear opponents down. Alcaraz, with his blend of power and athleticism, can plug away at Medvedev and hit through his defence. In trying to cope with power from the baseline, Medvedev takes up conservative court positions – especially while returning serve – sometimes standing as far behind as the fence. This plays into Alcaraz’s hands even more, as the Spaniard can step into the baseline to take control, and begin to serve-and-volley or throw in his signature drop shots.

On the slow, high-bouncing hard courts at their Indian Wells final this year, Medvedev struggled for these reasons. When they played each other in the semifinal at Wimbledon a few months later, on fast, low-bouncing conditions that aid Medvedev’s playing style, the patterns of play remained remarkably similar. In both matches, Medvedev did not win more than three games in any of the five sets they played.

“I would say what makes him that difficult is just that he has every shot. He has extra power to other players. So, it’s true many players — probably I would go with 97 percent — it’s tough for them to hit the ball through me. I’m always there, always running, always trying to get it back. He can do it just because he has this power,” the Russian was quoted as saying by ATP, looking ahead to a potential match with Alcaraz. “I need to be 11 out of 10 to try to beat him.”

To deal with Alcaraz, then, he may need a tactical rethink, including more aggressive court positioning, nullifying Alcaraz’s forehand by bringing his own backhand into play, and serving smartly and effectively.

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Having defeated Djokovic in the final at the US Open two years ago, Medvedev is no stranger to the big stage. But considerable adjustments may be needed for him to overturn his nightmare matchup against Alcaraz.

More than a slight edge

Alcaraz leads the head-to-head 2-1 against Medvedev

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– Wimbledon 2021 (R2)Medvedev bt. Alcaraz 6-4, 6-1, 6-2Still a rookie, Alcaraz was blown away by the more experienced Russian in his first outing at SW19.

– Indian Wells 2023 (F)Alcaraz bt. Medvedev 6-3, 6-2Using slower conditions in his favour, Alcaraz exploited Medvedev’s deep court positioning by combining powerful shotmaking with a variety of volleys and drop shots.

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– Wimbledon 2023 (SF)Alcaraz bt. Medvedev 6-3, 6-3, 6-3Despite the faster, low-bouncing grass courts, the patterns of play were remarkably like that of their Indian Wells clash. Alcaraz took control from the baseline, Medvedev scrambled to contend from as far back as the fence.

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