NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal knows this won’t last forever. He’s well aware that the ruling triumvirate of Nadal/Federer/Djokovic will eventually be overthrown by a younger generation of stars. He said so himself.
“Sooner rather than later,” the 33-year-old said Friday, two days before facing 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev in the U.S. Open final. “this era is gonna end. We’re arriving to that.”
A changing of the guard is inevitable. Father Time is undefeated. The clock wins in the end.
Rafael Nadal, however, just isn’t ready to let that happen. Not even close.
Nadal survived a five-setter against a remarkably resilient Medvedev, eventually winning the instant-classic 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 after 4 hours and 49 minutes of runs and comebacks, twists and turns, overhead smashes and drop shots, standing ovations and condescending jeers.
“It has been one of the most emotional nights of my tennis career,” Nadal said in the trophy presentation.
Nadal has now won four U.S. Opens and 19 Grand Slams, pulling just one behind Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20 and breathing new life into the never-ending debate as to who is the greatest tennis player to ever hold a racket.
“This victory means a lot, and especially the way that the match became,” he said. “So difficult, so tough. Was able to hold, at the end, the nerves, because the nerves were so high after having the match almost under control.”
It wasn’t the Federer/Nadal final New York fans (and television executives) wanted; it was the one they needed. This title bout teemed with the type of wonderful contrasts that give tennis its charm. A 33-year-old from Mallorca against a 23-year-old from Moscow. A lefty with 18 Grand Slam titles against a righty with zero. An all-time crowd favorite against a one-time villain. An arcing, topspin forehand against a piercing, flat backhand. The champion against the challenger.
It was the champion who got off to the nervier start. Nadal was shaky from the onset, mishitting a number of balls and looking generally uncomfortable early on. Medvedev broke to take a 2-1 lead, but Nadal broke right back to level the opening set. (In hindsight, that see-saw action was a preview of what was to come.) After matters temporarily settled and the two traded nine straight holds, Medvedev was broken while serving to stay in the set at 5-6, a missed backhand overhead serving as the clincher.
Nadal certainly wanted the opening set, but it seemed like Medvedev needed it. The Russian, thanks to a torrid stretch in the North American swing, played more tennis on punishing hardcourts than anyone this summer. He reached the final in Washington, D.C. and the Rogers Cup—where he lost 6-3, 6-0 to Nadal—before winning his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. This was his 23rd match since July 30. During this fortnight, he had already dealt with cramps in a second-round victory, and he looked more likely to retire with an injured quadricep than to win his quarterfinal match against Stan Wawrinka.
If he were to pull off this upset, the conventional wisdom said, he would have to get his nose in front. He couldn’t possibly have enough in the tank to come back against the most relentless player in the sport.
The narrative held up in the second set. Nadal broke to take a 3-2 lead and had no trouble closing it out 6-3. He roared. So did the crowd. Writers left their seats to head back to the media center. Might as well get a head start because this one’s over.
You could hardly blame Medvedev if he decided to mail it in after going down a break in the third. He was down two sets and a break against a player who makes you scratch and claw for every single point, let alone a game, let alone a break, let alone a set, let alone three freakin’ sets in a row. Nadal entered this match 208-1 in his career after winning the first two sets. Medvedev had never come back from two sets down to win, ever. Heck, he’d never even won a single five-set match in his career. He admitted that he thought about the speech he’d be giving after he lost. He so easily could have stood out there, played the part for 40 minutes, rested on the best summer of his professional life, collected his $1.9 million runner-up check and gotten back to his hotel at a reasonable hour.
He did nothing of the sort. There’s resilience, and then there’s whatever Daniil Medvedev showed in this match.
“I was like, ‘OK,OK,’ just fight for every point,” Medvedev said. “Don’t think about these things. It worked out not too bad.”
He immediately broke back and then held three straight times to go up 6-5. On break point, Medvedev fired a backhand down the line—the shot that keyed his comeback—to secure the break and the set. The 24,000 packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium rewarded his efforts with chants of “Med-ve-dev! Med-ve-dev!,” which was noteworthy for two reasons. First, his opponent was Rafael Nadal, the most popular tennis player on earth not named Roger Federer. Second, he hadn’t exactly endeared himself to fans here this tournament.
In his third-round match against Feliciano Lopez, Medvedev was called for a conduct violation after aggressively swiping a towel from a ballperson. He responded by flipping the bird. His gesture was shown on the big screen at Louis Armstrong Stadium and he was relentlessly booed for the rest of the match. After winning the match, he gave an on-court interview that doubles as a Ph.D.-level dissertation in The Art of Trolling: “I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.” He kept the schtick up in the fourth round, and at that point, it looked for all the world that Daniil Medvedev’s 2019 U.S. Open would be remembered for his villainy.
Those ugly scenes, those boos, seemed a lifetime ago as Medvedev kept hanging around in the fourth set. He threw everything he had at Nadal, ditching his baseline style for an array of drop shots, lobs and approaches to the net. He got into a rhythm with his serve, holding five straight times again to put the pressure on Nadal, and again ripping a backhand winner down the line to get the break to win the set 6-4.
“I felt that these guys wanted some more tennis,” Medvedev said after the match. “They were cheering me on like crazy. I knew I had to leave my heart out there for them, also. For myself, but for them also. I think they saw it and they appreciated it.”
Tennis fans are a fickle bunch. You can’t really tell who they’re rooting for until it’s a make-or-break moment for both players. They root for Player A when he’s losing, then back to Player B if Player A takes the lead. In a fifth set, though, preferences are laid bare, and the Medvedev chants were drowned out by “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” The crowd began to will their Spanish son to victory.
He needed every ounce of their support. In the deciding set, he saved three break points while serving at 0-1. After an unreturned serve clinched the hold, he turned around and put both arms in the air in a Rocky-like posture. Instead of his patented “vamos,” he looked at the crowd and bellowed “come on” three times. This time, in their language. He wanted them to understand that he needed their help.
Three games later, he chased down a Medvedev drop shot and fired a backhand winner to get the break, showing not an ounce of fatigue after more than four hours on court. He also won the next three games, including a second break, to take a commanding 5-2 lead and serve for the championship.
But Medvedev wasn’t finished fighting. He never finished fighting. A couple Nadal errors resulted in a break point, at which point Nadal was called for his third time violation and forced to hit a second serve. He missed it. One break down, one break to go.
It was déjà vu all over again—the umpire becoming a story in the U.S. Open final. A year ago, it was Carlos Ramos who took a game away from Serena Williams. This time, it was Ali Nili who indirectly forced Nadal to double-fault while serving for the U.S. Open. The crowd let Nili know exactly how they felt about the umpire becoming a story.
Nadal, to his credit, put it behind him rather quickly. He had a Grand Slam to close out, after all. After Medvedev saved two match points on his service game, Nadal stepped to the line with major No. 19 just four points away, again. And again, Medvedev made him work, earning a break point which Nadal saved with an aggressive crosscourt forehand. At deuce, Nadal played a deft drop shot for a winner to set up his third match point. He finally closed it with an unreturned first serve and dropped to his back, equal parts ecstatic and exhausted.
“All of these special matches, these kind of matches in the final of Grand Slams makes the match more special,” Nadal said. The way that the match became very dramatic at the end, that makes this day unforgettable. It’s part of my history in this sport.”
His history now includes another Grand Slam title and another challenger vanquished. This one was younger than usual. Medvedev would have become the only man under the age of 30 with a Grand Slam title to his name. He also would have been the youngest major champion since 19-year-old Juan Martin del Potro triumphed here in 2009.
Would have, definitely could have, maybe even should have … but didn’t. For the third straight year, all four Grand Slams have been won by some combination of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The Big 3’s stranglehold on the sport survives another day, but the next generation is coming and they’re tired of waiting. A lanky Russian has made that unmistakably clear.
“It’s really tough, because these guys, they are playing good tennis,” Medvedev said. “I don’t know what else to say. They are just playing amazing tennis.”
That changing of the guard?
“We're just doing our best to try to make it happen. Sometime.”