“Even at this stage, Nadal plays like he’s broke.” – Jimmy Connors, on ultimate warrior Rafael Nadal
When the US Open draw was announced, many tennis fans yearned for a final between legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who had never played each other at the tournament. Other aficionados hungered for a Young Gun to finally dethrone the long-reigning Big Three, paragons not only of sublime tennis but also admirable sportsmanship.
John McEnroe, the notorious tennis bad boy of the 1980s, wanted something else. “The game is crying out for personality,” he controversially said. So when Daniil Medvedev ripped a towel from the ball boy during his third-round victory over Feliciano Lopez, eliciting boos from the crowd, McEnroe exulted, “I love Medvedev because we need a bad guy.” After the match, a defiant Medvedev told the jeering spectators, “I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.”
But some people are simply too nice to play the role of villain—whether it be in the movies (Ronald Reagan) or on the tennis court. And Medvedev, a decent fellow, seeing the error of his misbehaving ways, later apologized, saying “What I got, I deserved.”
For Nadal, a man on a mission, there would be no contretemps. He steamrolled opponents to reach the US Open final, dropping just one set to 2014 champion Marin Cilic. On the four previous occasions when Federer and Novak Djokovic didn’t join Nadal in a Grand Slam semifinal, the opportunistic Nadal ran the tables. This time, the rugged Spaniard outclassed surprise semifinalist, No. 24 Matteo Berrettini 7-6, 6-4, 6-1.
The last man standing in the 33-year-old Nadal’s way to achieve his 19th major title was Medvedev. Before the final, the 23-year-old Russian described Nadal as “a beast on the court.” Medvedev found out just how beastly four weeks earlier when Nadal crushed him 6-3, 6-0 in the Montreal final.
But Medvedev, also beast-like, is a bear, not just nominally—what his surname means in Russian—but literally. He dominated the U.S. summer hard court circuit where he reached three finals and won Cincinnati, beating No. 1 Djokovic for the second time this year. With his confidence soaring, Medvedev declared, “I know when I play my best tennis, I can beat anybody.”
At the US Open, the No. 5 Medvedev had to claw his way through four straight four-set matches before outsmarting and out-steadying unseeded Grigor Dimitrov 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 in an interesting but predictable semifinal.
What could we expect when the Barcelona Beast faced the Moscow Bear before a tough crowd at Flushing Meadows?
“When Medvedev plays lower-ranked players, he tries to exploit weaknesses,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier. “When he plays top guys, he goes into slashing power tennis.”
In the opening set, however, Medvedev’s game was more tactical than powerful. Featuring change of pace, assorted spins, and patient counterpunching, it confounded Nadal. But no one makes mid-match adjustments better than the Spaniard. Leading 6-5, Nadal stepped up the offense. Volley, drop shot, and forehand winners helped him break serve to charge ahead 7-5. “I’m not 25 any more,” earlier acknowledged Nadal, as he eschewed his grinding style of yesteryear.
The last Russian man to capture a major title was hard-hitting Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open, but Medvedev’s chances looked bleak. After Medvedev barely staved off four break points in the fourth game of the second set, Nadal blasted a serve return to force an error to break serve for 4-2. With Medvedev returning serve an untenable 10 to 15 feet behind the baseline, Nadal easily held serve twice for the 6-3 set.
Could Medvedev somehow come back?
Consider these stats: Nadal boasted a 208-1 record after winning the first two sets at major tournaments. Conversely, Medvedev had lost all four five-set matches he’d contested.
It would take courage, stamina, and a change in tactics. Medvedev, whose coach Gilles Cuevara calls him “a genius,” smartly decided to stop counter-punching and start throwing more punches.
With Nadal leading 3-2 and up a service break in the third set, Medvedev broke right back for 3-all. Scrambling doggedly to reach every ball, the Russian improvised a two-handed backhand volley winner and belted an overhead winner to hold serve at 5-4. Spectators who jeered him last week cheered him. Energized and hitting the ball cleanly, Medvedev was suddenly out-Nadaling Nadal. A backhand down-the-line winner gave him a break and the third set, 7-5.
The screaming fans loved it, but Nadal didn’t quite know how to handle the resurgent Russian. He served and volleyed, ran Medvedev ragged at times, and tried drop shots to wear down his lean, 6’6” foe. But the tenacious Medvedev escaped two break points in the fifth game of the fourth set. Then, with Nadal serving at 4-5, 30-40—set point—Medvedev hit the shot of the match. From 15 feet behind the baseline, he fired a backhand serve return bullet that landed just inside the baseline. Two sets all.
Spectators were chanting “Rafa! Rafa!” Nadal needed that energy to escape three break points in the critical first game of the deciding set. One escape came when he served and volleyed, executing a brilliantly angled backhand volley winner.
Somehow, the more tired the competitors looked, the better they played. Neither player gave in or gave up. After four hours, the final stood deadlocked at 2-all. Suddenly, the plot twisted again. A backhand crosscourt winner gave Nadal a service break for 3-2, and then an unusual lob-drop shot combination led to another service break for a seemingly unstoppable 5-2 advantage. “It seems that I had, more or less, the match under control,” Nadal said afterward. He didn’t.
Medvedev got one service break back when Nadal, who sometimes takes too long between points, had his first serve called a fault because it was his second time violation. When he missed his second serve for a resulting double fault, he lost the game. Fans booed the chair umpire, even though he did the right thing.
Down 3-5, Medvedev pulled out everything in his bag of tricks, including twice serving and volleying (once on a second serve), to survive two more break points and close the gap to 5-4 Nadal. During the changeover, Nadal’s supporters shouted “Close it out!”
But like the rest of this epic duel, it wouldn’t be easy. With Nadal serving for the title, Medvedev had a chance to go ahead 0-30. But he made a rare tactical mistake when he let Nadal’s passing shot go by, thinking it would fly out. Instead, it landed just inside the line. Medvedev failed to convert a break point, his last chance. Then Nadal finished him off with a superb drop shot winner and an unreturnable serve.
After four hours and 50 minutes of thrilling tennis, Nadal prevailed 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
Less animated than the young Rafa, who used to regularly fist-pump and shout “Vamos!”, the veteran Rafa finally released his emotions after championship point. He collapsed on his back, covered his face, got up, raised his arms, and punched the air.
When clips of his 19 major titles were replayed on the big screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal sat transfixed, savoring each of them. And then he cried. During the trophy ceremony, Nadal told the crowd, “It’s one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career with that video.”
As spectators loudly cheered the valiant loser, Medvedev graciously congratulated his conquerer, saying, “A 19th grand-slam title is something unbelievably outrageous. The way you are playing is a joke. It is very tough to play against you. What you have done in tennis in general, I think hundreds of millions of kids watching want to play our sport.”
Medvedev, the first player 23 or under to reach the US Open final since 2010, thanked the nearly 24,000 spectators. “I know earlier in the tournament I said something in kind of a bad way, and now I’m saying it in a good way,” a contrite Medvedev said. “That it’s because of your energy that I’m in the final. You guys were pushing me to prolong this match because you want to see more tennis and because of you guys I was fighting like hell.”
Nadal has been fighting like hell for nearly two decades on the pro tour. Many experts predicted that the injury-plagued Spaniard would have a short career. But he proved them wrong and now he stands just one Grand Slam title behind Federer’s record 20. Those who debate the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) should factor in Nadal’s gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and call it a draw for now. (Neither Federer or Djokovic has won a gold medal.)
But there is no debate about the Big Three. For the third straight year, they greedily grabbed all four Grand Slam titles. In fact, these ageless tennis titans have amassed an astounding 51 of the last 57 major titles.
As McEnroe rightly wondered, “When will we have a changing of the guard?”
Paul Fein has received more than 40 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England. His websites are www.tennisconfidential.com and www.tennisquotes.com. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.