Over the course of his sterling career, Rafael Nadal has won 19 major titles, reached 27 Grand Slam finals, established himself as the mightiest competitor the game has yet known, and demonstrated a singularity of purpose in how he practices his craft. His combination of supreme physicality and incomparable mental toughness have made Nadal a universally revered sports figure. While Novak Djokovic has set himself apart as the nonpareil clutch competitor of his era, Nadal has been the sport’s most indefatigable fighter, the champion with the largest heart and the player fans have long embraced for his multitude of virtues.
As a reporter who has covered his entire career and seen him in so many trying situations, I have never admired Nadal more than I did while witnessing his harrowing five-set skirmish with Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final. This contest will live long in my imagination.
Through the years, Nadal has played only six finals that have gone the full five sets at the majors, and all have been memorable. He lost to Roger Federer in the 2007 Wimbledon final, then upended the Swiss the following year on the same fabled court in London. He has played three five-setters in the finals of the Australian Open—surpassing Federer again in a 2009 dandy, losing to Djokovic in a five-hour, 53 minute epic three years later, and falling to Federer in a 2017 blockbuster. In his 2012 collision with Djokovic, Nadal led 4-2, 30-15 in the final set; in 2017, the Spaniard was ahead of the Swiss 3-1 in the fifth and had a game point for 4-2.
But his match with Medvedev marked the first time Nadal had contested a five-set final in New York. Nadal was not simply fighting to overcome a rival who has moved rapidly into the forefront of the game, but the Spaniard was battling to defeat his inner demons.
The 19-time Grand Slam champion is an unassailable front runner, one of the best the game has ever seen. He stands at No. 2 on the Open Era rankings list of players with the best record after winning the first set, boasting am 854-46 (.949) mark. Djokovic is at the top at 769 matches won against only 35 losses (.956).
And so the Spaniard was already a good bet to beat Medvedev when he came from a break down to win the first set of their compelling final. Nadal took the second set on one break to lead two sets to love. When he went up a break in the third, serving for a 4-2 lead, he seemed certain to prevail.
It was at that precise juncture that Nadal made life difficult for himself and his legion of loyal boosters. His apprehension in that sixth game of the third set was unmistakable. A double fault put him down 15-40. He recovered to reach deuce and had Medvedev on the run, only to mishandle a high forehand volley down the line, sending it wide.
The Spaniard was broken there, but he had a break point at 4-4. He approached the net, and Medvedev lofted a high lob off the forehand down the line. Nadal backtracked, took it on the bounce, but inexplicably netted his normally trustworthy smash. He dropped that set but had some openings in the fourth—including two break points for 3-2—which he did not convert. Serving at 4-5, Nadal was ahead 40-15 but erred off the forehand an open court. Medvedev took the next three points. It was two sets all.
The fifth set brought more emotional hardship to Nadal. He saved three break points in the second game, erasing the last one after a time violation forced him to start the point with a second serve. From there, he performed dynamically to secure a pair of service breaks and a 5-2 lead. But despite a 30-15 lead in the eighth game, he was broken. At 30-40, he was hit with another time violation, and double faulted. Nevertheless, he had two match points in the following game, but Medvedev laced a two-hander down the line for a stunning winner, and then caught Nadal off-guard by coming in on his second serve.
And so Nadal served for the match a second time, and once more he danced into dangerous territory. A mishit forehand wide from him gave Medvedev a break point for 5-5. But Nadal was courageous when he needed to be. Je missed his first serve but approached from a deep position behind an inside out forehand and Medvedev lobbed long. Then Nadal sent an impeccable drop shot down the line off the forehand, which Medvedev could not answer. Finally, on his third match point, Nadal cracked a first serve at 124 M.P.H. down the T, eliciting a return error from Medvedev. With both tenacity and temerity, Nadal won, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
It was reminiscent in some ways of the 2008 Wimbledon final, when Nadal led two sets to love over Federer and the Swiss served at 3-3, 0-40 in the third. Federer boldly held on and won the set in a tie-break. In the fourth set tie-break, Nadal had two match points, but Federer gallantly escaped. Nadal was in some precarious corners before taking the fifth set, holding on from 3-4, 30-40 and again from 4-5, 30-30. He prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 9-7.
The most revealing and fascinating comment made by Nadal in his press conference following a nearly five-hour confrontation with Medvedev was when he was asked if he had ever thought the match could “go the wrong way.” Nadal was typically forthright: “Did I think I was going to lose? Of course, when you have breakpoint against you in the beginning of the fifth, losing the last two sets before that, you are in trouble. But I was really trying to avoid this thought. I always believed that I was going to keep having chances. That’s the way I approach it. But I always was in front of the score until the end. It is difficult for me to think I am going to lose.”
Refusing to consider losing may have ultimately won the match for him. To be sure, he did it the hard way, but Medvedev threw a surprisingly versatile game plan at Nadal. The Russian went to the serve-and-volley on very big points, as was the case at match point down with a second serve. He opened up the court beautifully with sharply angled crosscourt forehands, forcing the Spaniard to resort to his slice backhand more often than he would have liked. He drove his two-hander down the line with interest, surprising Nadal with the frequency of that tactic. And by varying his game so skillfully, Medvedev did not allow Nadal to dictate off the forehand as regularly as the Spaniard normally does. He made Nadal uncomfortable at times by going against the grain and attacking with admirable persistence.
Nadal also came forward unhesitatingly, which was not surprising. He won 17 of 20 serve-and-volley points, while Medvedev took 22 of 29 when going in on his serve. Altogether, Nadal won 51 of 66 net points, while Medvedev succeeded on 50 of 74 on his journeys to the forecourt.
It was arguably the best played US Open final ever. Since 1968, there have been only nine finals that have been settled in five sets, including a classic John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg 1980 meeting. But the Nadal-Medvedev contest was the finest sustained level of play in any of those finals.
The greatest match I have ever seen at the Open in any round was the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi quarterfinal played in 2001 under the lights featuring four tiebreaks and no service breaks. Sampras came from behind to win in four scintillating sets. Jimmy Connors eclipsing Bjorn Borg in an enthralling 1976 four-set final was a beauty as well. And the back-to-back Djokovic semifinal triumphs over Federer when the Serbian came from double match point down in both 2010 and 2011 were standouts.
But this much is certain: Nadal had to find a way to win this epic. He had last lost from two sets to love up against Fabio Fognini in the third round of the 2015 US Open. The indignity of losing a two-set lead had last happened to him in 2005 against Federer in the final of Miami. Had this one gotten away from Nadal, he would have dealt with it even-handedly and moved on. But it would have lingered unhappily in his mind and haunted him for a while.
Instead, he can celebrate a hard-earned win that puts him only one major shy of Federer. Nadal will surely win at least one more French Open, and he will have opportunities at the three other Grand Slam tournaments over the next couple of years. The view here is that he will eventually pass Federer, although the Swiss will be a prime contender next year at three of the four majors. Meanwhile, Djokovic is one year younger than Nadal, and I believe he will pass Federer as well if his shoulder injury is not too serious.
Like Djokovic, Nadal needs to avoid playing too many tournaments between now and the 2020 Australian Open. The 33-year-old Spaniard is way ahead of Djokovic in the ATP Race to London, with 9,225 points. (Djokovic is in second place at 7,265.) Neither man will be obsessed with finishing the year at No. 1 in the world, but they have split the four majors and will sorely want the reward of officially standing as the best player of the season.
For the time being, Nadal will be very content with a stellar run which brought him an exhilarating fourth US Open crown. At 33, he is the second oldest man to capture the US Open, surpassed in age only by 35-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1970. Nadal took his first title at the start of the decade in 2010 and now has been triumphant in the last edition. The 19-time Grand Slam champion will cherish his latest victory forever.