Down two sets and a break in the third against Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev began to compose his concession speech in his head. The 23-year-old Russian planned to thank the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which had turned in his favor on Sunday after jeering his rudeness earlier in the U.S. Open, and to say it wasn’t such an awful thing to lose his first Grand Slam final to the great Nadal in straight sets. Medvedev had called Nadal “a beast” a few days ago, and Medvedev was learning how beastly it can be to face the tenacious 33-year-old Spaniard in a major final.
Unexpectedly, wonderfully, fueled by his new friends in the stands, Medvedev got some traction. He mixed up his game so it was more unpredictable, going more to the net and trying slices and drop shots. He pushed Nadal all over the court, sparking a breathless, thrilling charge that pushed Nadal to the limit and delayed that concession speech until Medvedev ran out of ways to tame the beast that is the tireless, timeless Nadal.
Upholding the honor of tennis’ 30-something kings against the generally woeful challenge of the next generation, Nadal stopped the powerful tide of Medvedev’s comeback with a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory that exhausted those who watched almost as much as it drained the men who played it. Nadal won more rallies of five to eight shots and rallies of nine or more shots than Medvedev did, but those exertions took a toll. After dropping to his back on the court to celebrate the end of the 4-hour, 50-minute epic, Nadal rose and stood with his index fingers pointed upward and his face fixed in a grimace. Later, watching a video of his Grand Slam wins, he cried.
“This trophy means everything to me today. Personal satisfaction, the way I resisted all these tough moments, is very high,” Nadal said after he won his fourth championship at Flushing Meadows and 19th Grand Slam singles title. “I normally try to hold the emotions but with all these facts, impossible today.”
Nadal and 32-year-old Novak Djokovic split the four majors this year, with Djokovic winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and Nadal prevailing at the French Open—for the 12th time--and at the U.S. Open. With 19 career major titles Nadal is one behind 38-year-old leader Roger Federer. Would-be successors have come and gone and still the Big Three reign: Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic have won the last 12 straight Grand Slam singles titles and 51 of the last 59 starting with Nadal’s triumph at the 2005 French Open.
Nadal said he’s “honored to be part of this battle,” but he’s not obsessed with winning the most titles or recapturing the No. 1 world ranking. “I would love to be the one who win more, but I am not thinking and I not going to practice every day or not playing tennis for it. I am playing tennis because I love to play tennis,” he said. “I can’t just think about Grand Slams, no? Tennis is more than Grand Slams. I need to think about the rest of the things. I play to be happy.”
Medvedev, seeded No. 5, barged into discussions about potential heirs to the Big Three by having an impressive summer hardcourt season—he was 20-3—while others such as Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas struggled. Medvedev battled to the final here, playing a quartet of four-set matches. Nadal’s path was eased by a second-round walkover and he played four sets only once before Sunday.
The first two sets on Sunday felt like preludes to a quick coronation. But Medvedev woke up after Nadal broke for a 3-2 lead. Medvedev quickly broke back for 3-3 and the crowd grew loud. “I felt that these guys wanted some more tennis. They were cheering me up like crazy,” Medvedev said. “I knew I have to leave my heart out there for them also.”
They stayed on serve until Medvedev broke in the 12th game on his second set point attempt, with a backhand winner. “Of course, I was in trouble. But I played a not very good game at the 3-2 of that third set,” Nadal said. “In that moment things looked under control but then Daniil increased a lot and changed a lot of things.”
Medvedev broke to win the fourth set with a forehand, and the speech in his head was forgotten. The fifth set stayed on serve until Nadal broke through for a 3-2 lead, ending a 28-shot rally with a forehand into the corner. Nadal held serve in the next game for a 4-2 lead, finishing the point with a backhand winner. Nadal broke for 5-2 but Medvedev wasn’t done, winning the next game when Nadal committed a double fault after a time violation gave him an automatic fault, and then holding serve in a 12-point game. Medvedev had a break point at 30-40 but Nadal held on. “Two players fighting each other. He was the better one today. I have to admit it,” Medvedev said. “I have no regrets.”
Nadal complimented Medvedev for his performance on Sunday and all summer. “He has a great, great future in front. I really believe that he will be able to win Grand Slams. A couple of them, no?” Nadal said. “Let’s see. In this life is impossible to predict the future. But his career looks very, very well.”
It’s impossible to predict much about tennis except that Nadal will fight with every fiber of his being. “What gives you the happiness is the personal satisfaction that you gived your best,” he said. “In that way I am very, very calm, very pleased with myself.”