Daniil Medvedev will try to win his first major title on Sunday when he plays Novak Djokovic in the US Open final. The Russian star is the last player standing between Djokovic and history, as the Serbian is one victory from becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the Grand Slam.
Ahead of the match, ATPTour.com spoke to the first Russian to win a major, former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, to learn what he believes Medvedev has to focus on, what is at stake for Djokovic and more.
When Daniil first made the US Open final two years ago it was a big thing that he made the final, pushing Rafa to five sets was even better. But how different is it now that it’s his third final?
It’s definitely different in the sense that he’s not the same player now that he was two years ago. I’m talking about his [FedEx ATP] Ranking of course, his image among the players and in a sense, his game, too. Lots of things are different now compared to what it was two years ago.
What do you think he’s improved most as a player?
To be honest, self-confidence. That’s what he got the most out of the past two years. I think the number of matches that he has played since the final of the 2019 US Open. His winning record, his tournament win numbers, that’s a huge improvement. He’s not going into the match as a big underdog as he was two years ago against [Rafael] Nadal.
Did he prove something to himself in that match against Rafa, that he is capable of competing on such a big stage against the very best?
Based on that one match, I wouldn’t say so. I’d say the run after that put him in the self-belief that he can be among the very best in men’s tennis. I’m talking about the Masters  in Shanghai, the Asian Swing. I think it all came together for him at the right time after that. Self-belief is probably the biggest part of his game that he has improved.
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Of course Daniil is playing someone in Novak who is trying to make history. Do you believe the extra pressure on Novak might help Daniil and if so how?
I was talking to Russian journalists yesterday and I was telling them the pressure is on both of them. I understand regarding Novak, he is chasing history and probably that will be the most important match of his career in the final against Medvedev. But having said that, it’s also a very important match for Medvedev.
If he is there and loses that match, he’d lose three straight Grand Slam finals. It’s hard for any player to cope with that. It might be a monkey on his shoulders that he’d lose three straight finals. He might think, ‘God knows when I’m going to get another chance.’ Things like that. Pressure is on both players.
How important was it that he took care of business during the tournament and lost just one set to reach the final whereas Novak had to work harder to get there?
You would think [it would be important], but knowing the physical capabilities of Novak, it’s almost no advantage. His road to the final was a lot smoother and easier than Novak’s. But we all know how Novak can really shift into another gear when it matters most.
I think tomorrow will be the most important match of his career. Winning the 21st Grand Slam title, going ahead of his two rivals and most importantly winning the calendar Slam, which has not been done since 1969 and is not going to be broken for another 100 years, [would be huge]. In that sense, I think Novak will be the slight favourite, but not by much. I’ll give it 60 to 40 for Novak. It’s not going to be easy for him. It’s not going to be easy for both players, I would say.
What do you think about Andy Roddick’s tweet when he wrote that Novak takes players’ legs and then their soul?
I heard about it and would have to agree with Andy. Yes, Novak’s game drives everybody nuts in the sense that he is destroying the game of his opponents in a big way. For Medvedev to destroy Novak’s game, he has to do something extraordinary tomorrow evening. I will definitely be watching and to me it’s going to be very interesting as a spectator to watch the final tomorrow.
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The Australian Open final was not that complicated for Novak, but Daniil has caused him trouble sometimes, beating him three times. Why do you think he has troubled Novak?
I think when Daniil faces someone like Novak, who has an answer to all his questions on the tennis court, that’s when Daniil tries to go for something extra special and obviously it’s not that easy to do that against Novak, because he has all the answers to all the questions. His game is very extraordinary. He’s a great offensive player, he’s a great defender. He’s got a very effective serve. He volleys [well]. He’s got no weaknesses, so in that sense, Daniil has to do something very big to be able to play against Novak, and Novak is not going to give up at all tomorrow.
If you were on court tomorrow to play Novak, what would you try to do?
I wish I knew the answer to that question. I think the important thing would be to play from the very first point to the very last. I know it’s practically impossible, but that’s the only chance you’d have to beat Novak, especially in best-of-five set matches. If your focus goes away for a short period of time — if you lose your concentration during the match for five or 10 minutes — it might cost you a set and you might never come back. Daniil has to avoid that if he wants to win the match.
Let’s say Daniil wins tomorrow. How much more valuable would it be than any other major title because of Novak’s chase for history?
Absolutely. He wants to be known and he wants to be remembered as the one who stopped Novak. Don’t get me wrong, Novak is already in the history books. But that is a huge, huge, huge accomplishment for Novak. I would not be so optimistic that Novak is going to give up his chance tomorrow very easily.
The value of that match is probably the most expensive in his professional career and he knows that. And that’s scary. I understand if it’s a best-of-three match. But best-of-five [is different]… Again, Daniil has a chance. That’s for sure. Hopefully we will either see history or a great match.
If you had to give Daniil one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would say not to rush. Daniil, when his opponent has all the answers to his questions, he tends to go for a little bit more and to go for much more than he can. Patience will be the key and to play with a lot of concentration from the first point to the last.