If there was one person who truly understood what was unfolding in a US Open men’s final of unprecedented power and brilliance as Rafael Nadal weathered Daniil Medvedev’s eye-popping assault on his chances of winning a fourth title at Flushing Meadows, it was the little 81-year-old sitting in the President’s Box.
It was fifty years since Rod Laver had completed his second Grand Slam by beating Tony Roche in the US Open final at Forest Hills and he knew he was watching a different game. As an exponent of aggressive left-handed top spin, Laver was Nadal’s forerunner.
“But I never hit it as hard as Rafa,” he said when we talked recently. “With a small headed racquet you couldn’t get the rotation on the ball and even when I switched to a metal frame, the power wasn’t there compared to today. And don’t talk about the court.”
Laver wore spikes for much of his final against Roche because the grass was so greasy and I shall never forget the sight of Rod lifting up a two foot pod of grass which had come loose just inside his baseline and chucking it to the side of the umpire’s chair. Leaving a bare patch of soil was the better of two bad options.
In the magnificent modernity of Arthur Ashe Stadium there were no bad options. Nothing to prevent two extraordinary athletes producing a brand of tennis that even more recent champions like Jim Courier found difficult to comprehend. The spectacle was so good, so thrilling that in this age of the ten second attention span, 23,000 people shouted themselves hoarse for 4 hours 50 minutes. Only a tiny few had left by the time Nadal spread-eagled himself on the court, unable a few minutes later to hold back the tears after his 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 triumph against a 23-year-old opponent he called “one of the best in the sport since I started playing.”
Some tribute from a 15-year veteran of the tour who had just won his 19th Grand Slam title. But few would argue that Medvedev revealed all manner of reasons to believe he will soon start collecting Grand Slam titles of his own. To call him a Bolt from the blue would be an appropriate pun because he eats up the court with strides that remind one of Isiah. He is 6ft 6” and I have never seen anyone of that height move better. His forehand is a weapon of destruction and he creates angles off his backhand that only he could think of. And his spirit is undeniable. Every expert one heard offering opinions before the match insisted that Medvedev’s only chance of winning was to win the first set. He lost the first two and yet was still in the match at the start of the fifth. The brand of tennis that had enabled him to get there was jaw-dropping because it encompassed all the game’s skills – power driven back court rallies that he was not supposed to win against Nadal but did; numerous sorties to net to reveal skill and touch on the volley, and a serve that produced 14 aces. A lesser opponent than Nadal would have been blown away.
Medvedev has now established himself as the lead of the Next Generation but the exciting thing for tennis is that he will face challenges from within his own group. When Stefanos Tsitsipas refocuses, he will bring similar skills to the court and there is reason to believe that the two other young Russians, Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev, have the ability to challenge for top honors soon. Now that he appears to have got over his injury problems, the powerfully-built South Korean Hyeon Chung should also become a contender. And, in what became one of the least expected success stories of the tournament, Italy’s muscular 6’ 5” Matteo Berrettini burst into the semifinals, outplaying two experienced Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils along the way.
It is pointless to speculate how the men’s tournament might have panned out had the defending champion Novak Djokovic not been forced to retire during his fourth-round match against Stan Wawrinka after losing the first two sets. His left shoulder had been inhibiting his two-handed backhand for some weeks and his form suffered accordingly.
Having attracted record crowds and television ratings throughout the tournament, it was fitting that this year’s US Open should produce two such memorable finals. In contrast to the men, the women’s final saw the established champion unable to fend off the challenge of youth as Bianca Andreescu became, at the age of 19, the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title. As Serena Williams admitted herself, poor serving contributed to her inability to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, but the result had everything to do with Andreescu’s audacious and fearless hitting.
From the way she won the Indian Wells title in March, it was obvious Andreescu was special and only a nagging injury prevented her from backing up that early success during the European season. But her prospects of stardom were confirmed when she won the Canadian Open in Toronto and she became unstoppable as she powered her way through the US Open field.
The only set she dropped on her way to the quarterfinals (where Elise Mertens grabbed the first set before being overwhelmed) was against Chicago’s Taylor Townsend, who took a major step forward by winning a magnificent duel with No. 4 seed Simona Halep in the second round. Aided by fearless net play that proved how effective a good volley can be, Townsend then disposed of Sorana Cirstea, 7-5, 6-2 before Andreescu, temporarily forced back by the American’s aggression, beat her, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.
For me nothing was more pleasing about this US Open than its diversity and stretch of generations from 15-year-old Coco Gauff confirming the promise she showed at Wimbledon by winning two more rounds at Slam level to 38-year-old Roger Federer reaching his 56th Slam quarterfinal. Yes, Federer lost to a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov but don’t ask David Goffin about Federer’s waning powers. The Swiss beat him, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0, in the fourth round.
Not the least of Gauff’s achievements was the doubles partnership she formed with her good friend Caty McNally. The excitement this fresh and talented pair generated saw Louis Armstrong Stadium packed to its 10,000 capacity for their third-round match, which they lost to Victoria Azarenka and Ashleigh Barty. Has a women’s doubles ever attracted that kind of a crowd?
Love was in the air too as the international, interracial couple of Gael Monfils and Elina Svitolina both enjoyed terrific success with the French veteran reaching his ninth Grand Slam quarter final of a long career before losing to Berrettini while the fifth seed from the Ukraine went one better in women’s singles, getting to the semifinals before losing to Serena.
It was, in so many ways, the tournament that had everything and provided the perfect antidote to the pessimists who cannot see past day when a Nadal, Federer or Djokovic are no longer winning. No worries, as they say Down Under. The talent waiting in the wings is considerable.