Spaghetti, Spider-Man and teenage sensations

The finals of the US Open were one day but worlds apart, pitting youthful exuberance and hope against anguish and dead fish. But perhaps this says more about politics than tennis.

A piece of tinned human spaghetti reduced Spider-Man to Peter Parker at the bottom of a vast bowl in New York on Sunday 12 September. The previous day, two unnervingly grown-up teenagers took to the same deep blue rectangle at Flushing Meadows to prove there was life beyond Venus. And Serena.

Novak Djokovic struts around the tennis court like a gym-obsessed stockbroker at an exclusive country club. His inner cyborg powers him with militaristic urgency. His jaw is as chiselled as his muscles are sculpted. His dense pelt of dark hair isn’t merely styled. It’s designed. Like Spider-Man, the Serb is an immaculate confection.

Djokovic essays his strokes in a grand manner. His Russian opponent, Daniil Medvedev, scribbles his like notes on to a used serviette, which he flings over his shoulder. You wouldn’t be surprised to find nothing but a wire coat hanger under his billowing shirt. His face sprouts indiscriminate fuzz. His beige – not blonde – hair is flaccid: a crowning apology. He is spaghetti. In tomato sauce. In a can.

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Djokovic strutted out to play Medvedev in the US Open men’s singles final at Flushing Meadows just three successful sets away from becoming the first man to claim a calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969. He left in a shambling mess. Twice between games he sat with his head shrouded in a towel. The second time, at 4-5 in the third set and with Medvedev leading 6-4, 6-4, the edges of Djokovic’s hiding place parted enough to reveal an anguished face. This master of the universe was not crying but weeping. 

At 1.98m, Medvedev stands 10cm taller than Djokovic. And with every apparently hopeless flail of Medvedev’s racquet – and every crazy which way his shots confounded convention and gathered points – Djokovic shrank in stature. Near the end, the Serb’s strut was gone, his shirt loose around slumping shoulders. His elegance had left the vast bowl. The unthinkable was happening before the incredibly shrinking Djokovic’s hot, wet eyes. The opponent he had smashed in straight sets in the Australian Open final not seven months earlier was returning the favour.

Real-world blemishes

When it was done, after Medvedev had bounced the ball five times before tossing it – usually it’s twice or thrice – and banged a serve way out wide that a plodding Djokovic could only send swooning into the sniggering net, the new champion slumped on the court and stuck out his tongue.

“Only the legends will understand, what I did after the match was an L2 + left,” Medvedev said at the trophy presentation. For the uninitiated, that means holding down the left bumper of a PlayStation controller while nudging the right analog stick to the left while pretending to play football on Fifa, and one of your players on the screen will fall down flat in what’s known as a “dead fish” or “brick fall” celebration.

Medvedev is 25. Should he really be playing video games? Reassuringly, he also plays chess. In the breathless minutes between the end of Sunday’s match and the presentation, he pulled out his phone. His watching wife, Daria Medvedeva, did the same. Here’s hoping they were texting each other as Sunday was the third anniversary of their wedding.

There are other suggestions that Medvedev isn’t entirely adult. In February he said he was “not really going to understand why we cannot say ‘Russia’, why we cannot see our flag”, at the Tokyo Olympics. “I’m Russian. Why can’t I say it? It’s politics. I don’t go into that.”

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It isn’t politics. It’s drugs. Russia weren’t allowed to compete as a team – their athletes were in Tokyo as neutrals – in the wake of a massive, state-sponsored doping scandal. 

Djokovic, too, is not without real-world blemishes. His father, Srdjan Djokovic, proclaimed his son “a nationalist, of course, like me and most people in his country” after Novak celebrated winning the 2020 ATP Cup in Sydney with his Serbian teammates by singing songs to commemorate Vidovdan. The holiday marks the day in 1389 when a trans-Balkan army clashed with the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Kosovo. Serbia’s political class has since propagated the nation-building myth that their brave soldiers did it on their own.

Dodgy politics could help Djokovic and Medvedev cut the awkwardness when next they meet. Which they will, as they’re neighbours in Monaco and train at the same club.

Refreshingly different

A day earlier, on Saturday 11 September, two refreshingly different players were in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Emma Raducanu is the only qualifier of any gender to reach the final of a Major. Her opponent, Leylah Fernandez, was unseeded. Both play with the fearlessness of those who don’t know what it’s like to wake up the day after you tried to remember how to play tennis and forgot you’re closer to 50 than 40. Of course they don’t: Raducanu is 18, Fernandez 19.

Raducanu hadn’t dropped a single set on her blazing trail, and her pyrotechnic display of power and presence ended in a 6-4, 6-3 triumph. Even in defeat, Fernandez had the presence of mind to ask for the microphone back after her on-court interview: “I know on this day it’s especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States. I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the last 20 years. Thank you for always having my back. Thank you for cheering for me. I love you, New York.”

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Saturday marked 20 years since the September 11 terror attacks. Their memory is older than Fernandez and Raducanu. Fernandez is Canadian, born of a mother who has Filipino roots and an Ecuadorian father. Raducanu is British, but her mother is Chinese and her father Romanian. She posted a video in Mandarin thanking her Chinese fans for their support.

What do immigrant-hating Nigel Farage and his sorry right-wing ilk make of that? Maybe nothing. There’s every chance they only watch tennis played by people like Medvedev and Djokovic.

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