The 2021 U.S. Open began with one question bigger than all others, and through the upsets and general chaos of the past week-and-a-half, it continues to loom.
Can anyone derail Novak Djokovic’s path to the first men’s calendar-year Grand Slam in 52 years, and if so, who might that be?
On paper, Daniil Medvedev is the leading candidate, what with being seeded second in the tournament, ranked second in the world and a two-time Grand Slam finalist.
So far, so good, for the lanky Russian, even if things got a little more complicated than expected on Tuesday when he encountered qualifier Botic Van De Zandschulp in the first men’s quarterfinal.
Medvedev dominated early, then had to work for a berth in his third consecutive U.S. Open semifinal, winning 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5.
Medvedev will meet Felix Auger-Aliassime in the semifinals after Auger-Aliassime won his quarterfinal upon the sudden retirement of Carlos Alcaraz as he trailed, 6-3, 3-1 in the second set.
The 18-year-old had been one of the young sensations of the Open but struggled early against Auger-Aliassime.
He called over a trainer during a changeover shortly before retiring 1:08 into the match, disappointing the big crowd.
Alcaraz said the "principal problem" was his right abductor muscle, and he said the back-to-back five-set matches he played contributed to the injury, which began to worsen late in the first set.
"It’s really tough to end a great tournament like this, but I had no choice," he said. "I have to take care of my body and to stay healthy. It’s a long match and I didn’t feel good to still play."
Still playing is Medvedev.
"I couldn’t dream of it, maybe four years ago," Medvedev said of his three-year streak of Flushing Meadows final fours.
Now about winning it all . . . Medvedev made a passing reference to the possibility of facing Djokovic in the final as he was discussing his potential semifinal opponents.
That led to an obvious followup: Does he have to force himself not to think about Djokovic as he takes care of business on his end of the draw?
"I don’t think about him, because as we saw, anybody can beat anybody," Medvedev said. "If he’s in the final and if I’m there, I’m happy and he’s also happy, I guess."
Medvedev said that because Djokovic has been playing on the days Medvedev does not, he watches his matches, but only because he enjoys watching tennis, not for scouting purposes – or to hope for a clearer path to the championship.
"I’m not going to root or cheer for somebody," he said.
Medvedev’s was a strange quarterfinal match, beginning just after noon when the Arthur Ashe Stadium geometry had the court half in shadows and half not, which Medvedev said messed with some of his serve tosses.
But he got that sorted out and made it through the fourth set mostly because of his dominance on serve.
Afterward, he complimented Van De Zandschulp for his unlikely run, which inspired raucous cheering from some Dutch fans in the stadium.
"For me, it’s tough to believe still that I was here in the quarters and I made such an impact on those people," he said.
Finally, though, Medvedev simply was too much. He blunted the effectiveness of Van De Zandschulp’s serve because he sets up so far behind the baseline, and he forever is difficult to outlast on long baseline exchanges.
"The guy is making every shot, and when I came into his backhand the passings were amazing," the Dutchman said.
At 25, Medvedev is neither one of the spunky teenaged upstarts that have made their marks in the tournament, nor is he an aging all-time great such as Djokovic.
He is in his prime and poised for a Grand Slam breakthrough. He lost the 2019 Open final to Rafael Nadal in five sets and was crushed by Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.
"I just want to do a little bit better than the last two times and get this last step, which is the toughest one," he said on the court in an ESPN interview.
Medvedev knows all about that. At least he has been here before.
"I like that I have this experience," he said. "I know how it is. I’m not going to be tight."
Sabalenka reaches semis. In the evening women’s quarterfinal, No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka had no trouble with No. 8 seed Barbora Krejcikova, 6-1, 6-4, to advance to a semifinal against teenage sensation Leylah Fernandez on Thursday.
Sabalenka said in an on-court interview with ESPN, "I would say it’s like nothing to lose for [Fernandez]. It’s going to be an interesting match and I’m really looking forward to this one."