Medvedev wouldn't go away, and Rafa was pushed to his limit—in victory

Medvedev wouldn't go away, and Rafa was pushed to his limit—in victory

Rafael Nadal nearly blew a two-set lead, and a double-break lead in the fifth, to Daniil Medvedev, who finally lost the US Open final on Rafa's third championship point.

NEW YORK—Only minutes after Rafael Nadal had finally vanquished Daniil Medvedev in five pulsating sets to secure his fourth US Open title and seal his 19th major in the process, he stood in front of the fans at the presentation ceremony and thanked them for their extraordinary enthusiasm and their unflagging appreciation for what both players had done.

”It was a pleasure to play in front of you in this amazing stadium," Nadal said. "It has been an amazing final. There is no one stadium more energetic than this one. This victory means a lot to me, especially with the match being so close. I had the match almost under control. It has been a crazy match. It was one of the most emotional nights of my career. Daniil showed why he is the No. 4 player in the world. The way he [Medvedev] was able to fight and change the rhythm of the match was incredible. I congratulate him.”

Medvedev was similarly laudatory of his renowned opponent.

“First of all, I want to congratulate Rafa for his 19 Grand Slam titles," Medvedev said. "This is something unbelievable and outrageous. I congratulate his team as well. To be honest, in my mind I was okay [when I was down two sets]. I was already thinking about what I want to say in my speech but I then had to fight for every ball. I want to thank you guys. I said it in a bad way earlier in the tournament but now I say it in a good way. You were pushing me to prolong the match. I could not have been in the final without you. I was fighting like hell.”

The ferocity of both competitors was astounding. This was the ninth US Open final since 1968 to be settled in five sets, and the second longest at four hours and 51 minutes, three minutes shy of the Andy Murray-Novak Djokovic clash seven years ago. There have been some classic and epic title round confrontations in New York that went the distance, including John McEnroe toppling Bjorn Borg in 1980. Altogether, there have now been only nine five-set finals at the US Open. But examining this contest in its entirety and considering both the level of play and the depth of the suspense, this one was perhaps the best of them all.

Photos by Anita Aguilar

Across the first couple of hours, no one could have predicted that the Nadal-Medvedev duel would turn into something transcendent. It seemed entirely possible that the Spaniard would make good on the prognosticators who pointed to a clearcut Nadal triumph in three or four sets. The reasons for that feeling were numerous. Nadal was appearing in his 27th major final; Medvedev his first. He was determined to close within one title of the men’s leader Roger Federer, and he had taken apart Medvedev, 6-3, 6-0, in their only previous appointment last month in the final of Montreal.

In turn, Medvedev had never been beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament prior to this past fortnight. And he had seemingly exhausted all of his physical resources in an astonishing summertime run on the hard courts, reaching the finals of Washington and Montreal and then winning Cincinnati. But despite a debilitating journey to this point, the prevailing view was that Medvedev would not be able to stand up to the extreme physical punishment he would have to endure against the masterfully strategic Nadal.

When Nadal moved into a commanding lead on Arthur Ashe Stadium, he seemed certain get the job done on his own terms. In the opening set, the 33-year-old left-hander was clearly tight in the early stages. He was given a time warning in the opening game, managed to hold on from break point down, but then was broken in the third game when he smothered a forehand into the net, revealing his anxiety in the process. But Nadal broke right back for 2-2. After taking a 4-3 lead, he had three break points in the eighth game but failed to convert. Medvedev held on obstinately for 4-4.

Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, the 23-year-old Russian needed six game points but he made it to 5-5. Two games later, however, he could no longer fend off a persistent Nadal. At 5-6, Medvedev wiped away one set point at 15-40, but on the next point he missed a backhand overhead as Nadal caught him with a topspin lob down the line. Nadal had the set 7-5. From 2-2 in the second set, the No. 2 seed took four of the next five games for a two-sets-to-love lead, breaking Medvedev for a 4-2 lead. Serving for the set at 5-3, he swept three points in a row from 15-30, sealing the set by driving a two-hander close to the sideline and coaxing an error off the forehand from the Russian. Second set to Nadal, 6-3.

Now Nadal was ahead two sets to love, and when he broke for a 3-2 lead in the third, the title seemed certain to be soon within his grasp. But with the score locked at deuce in the sixth game, Nadal wasted a big opening after running Medvedev ragged during the point. He bungled a high forehand volley, sending it wide down the line. Medvedev broke back for 3-3. At 4-4, Nadal had another chance to close in on a straight-sets triumph, but on break point he retreated for an overhead off a lob from Medvedev that was not that deep, took it on the bounce, and netted the smash.

Nadal could have been serving for the match, but his mistake at such a crucial moment was expensive. Medvedev held on for 4-4. With Nadal serving at 5-6, Medvedev laced a forehand winner up the line for 0-40, and broke at 15 with a scintillating backhand winner. It was two sets to one, and the match was already nearly three hours old.

There were no breaks in the fourth set until Nadal served at 4-5. He released an ace for 40-15, but did not give himself enough margin for error on the next point, erring off the forehand. Medvedev erupted with a running forehand passing shot down the line. Nadal miss-hit a forehand and then Medvedev stuck with his policy of going down the line off the backhand, connecting for a winner to take the set.

Against all odds, it was two sets all. Medvedev called for the trainer at the changeover but he remained remarkably mobile. He held in the opening game of the fifth and then had Nadal down 15-40 in the second game. Nadal saved the break point with a terrific half-volley winner as he served-and-volleyed, saved a second break point, but then faced a third. He was called for a time violation, and forced to hit a second serve as a result, but he approached on a forehand inside out forehand and forced a passing shot error. He held on gamely for 1-1.

Both players held for 2-2, and then Medvedev built a 40-0 lead in the fifth game. Nadal surged from there to break point, only to be aced by the 6’6” Russian. But he garnered a second break point, and this one he exploited. On the 27th stroke of a spectacular exchange, Medvedev lunged for a forehand and it landed short and low. Nadal came forward swiftly and sent a backhand crosscourt into the corner for a dazzling winner.

The crowd was on its feet chanting, “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa!” Nadal moved to 4-2 with a backhand volley winner. Medvedev was ahead 30-0 in the seventh game but once more Nadal turned things around commendably, winning four points in a row. With Medvedev serving at 30-40, Nadal lobbed a backhand return with good depth, and Medvedev missed long on the overhead.

Nadal had gained the insurance break for 5-2, and his multitude of boosters in the crowd buoyantly believed it was just about over. But that was not the case at all. Medvedev was competing with the same quiet fury as he had all match long, and was not acquiescing. Serving for the match in the eighth game, Nadal established a 30-15 lead with one of his trademark points of the match. He was pulled perilously wide by a Medvedev forehand crosscourt, scraped it back. Medvedev drew him with a drop shot and then backed Nadal up with a topspin lob, forcing a weak response. Medvedev took over the net, half-volleying down the line off the forehand. Nadal stupendously snapped it back down the line, and an off balance Medvedev missed with a forehand.

Nadal was two points away from the win. But he missed once off each side to make it 30-40 and was then called for another time violation. Having to start with another second serve, he double faulted. The crowd booed vociferously. It was 5-3. But with Medvedev serving at 3-5, the Russian player was twice down match point. He saved the first with a magnificent backhand winner down the line off Nadal’s return and erased the second with a gusty serve-and-volley on a second delivery, eliciting a netted forehand return.

Medvedev held on steadfastly to close the gap to 5-4, raising his arms and imploring the crowd to stay with him. He had his share of animated fans cheering him on and they applauded unreservedly. But Nadal was serving for the match again at 5-4, his second chance to close it out on his own delivery. At 30-30, he miss-hit a forehand badly out of court, and remarkably Medvedev was one point away from a 5-5 deadlock. Nadal missed his first serve but he took control of the rally, came forward on a forehand inside out approach, and Medvedev lobbed long. At deuce, with Medvedev well behind the baseline after returning serve, Nadal went down the line with a forehand drop shot and Medvedev had no play. It was match point for Nadal. His first serve down the T at 124 M.P.H. was well placed, and Medvedev’s return landed long.

And so Nadal had completed a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory raising his record to 19-8 in major finals, closing in on Federer historically, setting the stage for a fascinating 2020 campaign. The Big Three have now won all 12 majors since Stan Wawrinka was victorious at the 2016 US Open: Nadal has won five Grand Slam tournaments, Djokovic four, and Federer three.

Asked about the race for preeminence in history, Nadal said, “All the things that I have achieved in my career are much more than what I ever thought and what I ever dream. I would love to be the one who have more, yes. But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the satisfaction is that you give your best.

"In that way I am very, very calm and very pleased with myself."