Someday, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will lose their stranglehold on Grand Slam tournament titles. Someone will push the Big Three aside, cracking an opening for a brigade of energetic youngsters to break through, and the torch will figuratively be passed to the next generation.
Backed by a crowd that has always appreciated his passion and grunting exertions, the 33-year-old Spaniard gained strength after he saved two set points in the first-set tiebreaker of his semifinal against Italy’s Matteo Berrettini on Friday. Nadal insisted he was lucky to win the first set. Maybe so. But with his 23-year-old opponent over-hitting at crucial times and committing 44 unforced errors, Nadal used his skill and experience to complete a 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-1 victory and earn a berth in Sunday’s final against Daniil Medvedev of Russia at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I survived at that moment,” Nadal, a three-time champion here, said of the tiebreaker against Berrettini. “Then I started to play with more calm. I’m super happy to be back in the final of the U.S. Open.”
It will be Nadal’s 27th appearance in a Grand Slam singles final, second only to Federer’s 31. Nadal has won 18 titles, also second to Federer, who has 20. “It means a lot to be back where I am today after some tough moments at the beginning of the season,” said Nadal, who retired from his semifinal here last year because of a knee injury and later underwent ankle surgery. He also needed treatment for a forearm injury during this tournament.
Big-serving Berrettini led the tiebreaker 4-0. Nadal looked at each point, not at the big picture. “My goal in that moment is to put the first point on my score and then win one of the next two points on the return at least. Then you are 5-2. You are in a tough situation, but if you are able to win the next two points with your serve, then you are 5-4,” he said. That’s what happened. Berrettini won the next point on a forehand volley but lost the next one on a short backhand. Another backhand unforced error by Berrettini made it 6-6. Two more unforced errors and the tiebreaker belonged to Nadal. So, essentially, did the match.
“Winning the first set would have meant a lot, especially with him,” Berrettini said. “It’s tough to go a set down after more than an hour with him.”
Berrettini’s serve reached 133 mph, but his 44 unforced errors — to 18 by Nadal — were too plentiful to overcome. Nor did Berrettini gain any break points on Nadal. “But I cannot complain about what I did,” Berrettini said. “I was playing with Rafa, center court, in semis. I think it’s OK.”
In the first semifinal, fifth-seeded Medvedev held off unseeded Grigor Dimitrov early and pulled away late for a 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-3 win that improved his summer hardcourt record to 20-2. One of those losses, however, was to Nadal in the final of a tournament at Montreal last month.
“Talking about Rafa, it’s tough to find words,” Medvedev said. “So many players and so many people found them before me. He’s one of the greatest champions in the history of our sport. He’s just a machine, a beast on the court.”
Nadal appreciated the compliment. “Always is beautiful to hear nice things from your colleagues. Happy for that,” he said. “Just I hope to be like this on Sunday. I will need it.”
Medvedev has been on his best behavior after he incurred $9,000 in fines for displaying his middle finger to the crowd and grabbing a towel from a towelboy earlier in the tournament. He’d prefer to be known for his achievements, such as his tour-leading 50 wins this season, than for being a clown. The fans who booed him so lustily last week seemed to be on his side now. “I can only say I’m a really calm person in life. I actually have no idea why the demons go out when I play tennis,” he said. “I have been working on it a lot and I have improved a lot.”
He’s capable of giving Nadal, his idol, a stern challenge on Sunday. “To play him in your first grand Slam final should be, I want to say, a funny thing. It’s not going to be a funny thing, but it’s going to be an amazing thing to live,” Medvedev said.
Can the 23-year-old Russian end the Big Three’s Grand Slam monopoly? “At some point, these days, going to happen sooner than later that this era going to end. Is arriving to the end. I am 33. Novak is 32. Roger is 38. Andy [Murray] is 32, too,” Nadal said. “The clock is not stopping. That’s part of the cycle of life. I’m not much worried about this because in tennis always going to be great champions.”
Nadal is one of them, and he’s not ready to step aside. Not here, and not now.