“I would love to be the one to have more, yes,” Rafael Nadal said on Sunday night, after winning his fourth US Open and 19th Grand Slam title. “But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the happiness is the personal satisfaction that you [gave] your best.”
Nadal was talking, of course, about the GOAT Race, the three-way chase between himself, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic to see who can finish with the most major titles, and thus, in all likelihood, be crowned the greatest men’s player of all time. We can talk about other achievements—weeks at No. 1, year-end No. 1s, total titles, total wins, grittiness, elegance, etc—but in most people’s minds, the player with the most majors is going to be the GOAT. And not for a short amount of time: As of now, no male player under the age of 30 has won even one Slam, and none appear destined to approach Federer’s current men’s-best mark of 20. “I don’t think we’ll see anyone challenge that record in my lifetime,” Brad Gilbert, who is 58, said earlier this year.
In other words, that’s a lot for the Big 3 to think about whenever they play a major, and especially when they play a major final. These matches are already among the throat-tighteningly tense events in sports, without bringing history into the equation. As much as Nadal might have wanted to put the Slam chase out of his mind tonight, how could he not think about it? Here was the rarest of rare opportunities, a chance to play for a Slam title without having to face either Djokovic or Federer—or Stan Wawrinka or Juan Martin del Potro or anyone else who has beaten him a big event before. Instead, it was the gangly figure of 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev, a Slam-final rookie and recent addition to the Top 10, who stood between Nadal and 19. Medvedev is a tremendous, tough player, and he may be a Hall-of-Famer himself someday, but Nadal would have kicked himself if he had let this chance slip past.
And that’s probably why he almost did let it slip past. Everything was under control from Nadal’s point of view for the first two and half sets. After starting out playing “too tactical,” as his coach, Carlos Moya, put it—i.e, trying to beat Medvedev at his own cerebral game—Nadal had moved forward at the end of the first set and taken advantage of Medvedev’s deep court position. Rafa would end up coming to net 66 times. By the time he led by two sets and a break in the third, Medvedev said he was preparing his runner-up speech in his head.
Then, serving at 3-2, Nadal cracked open the door with a missed smash and two backhand errors, and Medvedev barreled through it. He started to win the long rallies, and to finish points at the net—he would go there 74 times on the night. For the next two sets, Medvedev, rather than Rafa, was the wall that wouldn’t crack, and the one who looked like he could play forever. Medvedev saved two break points at 4-4 in the third, and then broke for the set at 5-6. In the fourth set, with Nadal serving at 4-5, Medvedev came from 40-0 down to break again, with a backhand pass. Instead of a 19th major title, was this going to be a return to Rafa’s struggles of 2015 and 2016, when he lost so many matches that he seemed sure of winning?
“He’s freaking out a little bit,” John McEnroe said in the ESPN booth.
Nadal was bug-eyed and breathing hard at the start of the fifth, while Medvedev was as coolly intent as a gunslinger as he waited to return serve. His expression, and seemingly his physical condition (other than the sweat in his hair), hadn’t changed since the start of the match.
Medvedev reached break point twice. On the first, Nadal clipped the sideline with a backhand after a long rally. On the second, Nadal was given a time violation by chair umpire Ali Nili; it was his second of the match, which meant that he lost his first serve. But as so often happens in these cases, it was the penalized player who benefited. Annoyed, Nadal went on the attack, saved that break point, and held. Three games later, he broke Medvedev with a backhand winner, and broke again for 5-2.
“When you have break point against in the beginning of the fifth, losing the last two sets, you are in trouble,” Nadal said. “But I always try to avoid this thought.”
Surely, Nadal wouldn’t lose from 5-2, two breaks up, in the fifth set. But he wasn’t just one game from winning the Open, he was one game from 19, and getting across both of those finish lines was never going to be easy. Nadal double faulted at 15-0, and double faulted again at break point, after having another first serve taken away—by now Rafa was in a race with Nili’s unforgiving serve clock on virtually every point. Serving at 3-5, Medvedev saved two match points, one with a backhand winner, the other with a gutsy-crazy second serve winner.
Rafa still have one more chance to serve it out at 5-4. When he shanked a forehand to go down break point, it looked as if his nerves had finally overtaken him. But as he has so many times in the past, Nadal answered adversity with aggression, and came up with three of his best shots of the night when he absolutely had to have them.
At 40-30, he won the point with a strong inside-out forehand. At deuce, he feathered a forehand drop shot just over the net and just out of Medvedev’s reach. And at match point, he fooled Medvedev, who guessed that he was going wide in the ad court with his first serve, by going down the T instead. Medvedev made it back to the center of the court, but couldn’t control his forehand. Like everything else about this evening for Rafa, it was just enough.
“The way that the match became very dramatic at the end, that makes this day unforgettable, part of my history of this sport,” he said.
“This trophy means everything to me today. Personal satisfaction the way that I resisted all these tough moments is very high.”
The GOAT race really isn’t fair to these guys. Federer has said that as a kid he only ever dreamed of winning one Grand Slam; 20 would never enter any rational person’s head. Tonight Rafa echoed that thought when he said, “All the things that I achieved in my career are much more than what I ever thought and what I ever dream.”
Now, after all they’ve done, we’re going to tell them that winning 16 or 19 or 20 majors somehow wasn’t enough?
At the same time, each of the Big 3 would like to finish first. And as much as they try to block it out, or downplay it, the pressure during their major finals must be intense—if they win six matches but not the seventh, history essentially says they’ve failed, and the whole tournament was a waste of time. When they make a major final, they basically aren’t allowed to lose. And maybe that’s why they don’t lose: Nadal’s US Open victory is the 12th straight Slam title for the Big 3, and their 55th overall.
But tonight we also got to see the upside of the Slam chase. Rather than succumb to nerves and squander a golden opportunity, Nadal found a way past them—in his words, he “resisted,” and ended up with one of the most satisfying and hair-raising wins of his career. Going for No. 19 brought out the best in Nadal, and showed us why he he may end up being the GOAT after all.