The old lion is still roaring. Rafael Nadal, 33, is back in his element, in the final of a Grand Slam event for the 27th time, seeking his 19th championship. He is playing for himself, not for numbers or records, an approach that has been liberating and energizing — and successful.
Nadal had a fortunate path to the U.S. Open final as the No. 2 seed, placed in the opposite half of the draw from No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer. He also benefited from a second-round walkover. But while Djokovic retired in the fourth round and Federer faded out in the quarterfinals, Nadal has endured. He earned his place in Sunday’s final against 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev of Russia by fending off kids who were happy to be on the same court with him as he schooled them in playing clutch points and crafting victories when circumstances demand it.
A victory on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium would leave Nadal one short of Federer’s no longer remote record of 20 Grand Slam titles. Nadal wants the record, but he doesn’t need it to be satisfied with who he is.
“Of course, I would love to be the one who achieve more Grand Slams, but I still sleep very well without being the one who have more Grand Slams,” he said. “I am very happy about what I’m doing. I’m going to keep working hard to produce chances. Sunday is one. It’s just one more chance, that’s all.
“As I always say to you, and is true, I would love to be the one to have more, yes, but you cannot be all day frustrated or all day thinking about what’s your neighbor have better than you. You have to be happy with yourself. You have to do your way. If you are the one to achieve more, fantastic. If not, at least I give my best during all my career. That’s all.”
Nadal has lost one set here, to Marin Cilic in the round of 16, and he has played only one tiebreaker, against Matteo Berrettini in their semifinal on Friday. He has won 67 of his 73 service games, a 92% success rate.
Medvedev is having a dream summer, winning 20 of 22 hardcourt matches and rising to No. 5 in the rankings. He has had to work harder here than Nadal: He played four matches that went four sets, though he polished off his opening match and his semifinal against Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets. He has fired the second-most aces in the tournament, 88, but is second in double faults with 46. He has broken serve 33 times and has been broken 18 times.
His previous best Grand Slam showing was reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open this year.
“It’s just so tough to win a five-set match,” he said. “I knew I was going the right way, I just had to fight for every set, for every point. [It] didn’t work out before. But here, this week, everything has worked out.”
Medvedev lost his only previous match against Nadal, a 6-3, 6-0 punishment last month in the final of a tournament in Montreal. “It was a tough one,” Medvedev said. “His energy was much higher than mine.”
As the tournament has progressed Medvedev has curbed the bad-boy behavior that inspired fans to treat him like a WWE villain. After being fined for showing fans his middle finger and snatching a towel from a ball boy, he has redirected his emotions into his tennis — and has won fans’ affection.
“I want to be a better person than I was a few days here,” he said.
He’s good enough to challenge Nadal, who has been impressed with Medvedev’s progress.
“I think he’s making the steps forward every single day,” Nadal said. “Is a super tough final.”