Rafael Nadal outlasts Daniil Medvedev in U.S. Open epic; one shy of Roger Federer’s record

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal would not succumb to Daniil Medvedev in 4 hours, 51 minutes in the U.S. Open final. But the two-minute tribute video after Nadal won his 19th Grand Slam singles title in the five-set epic?

That brought the fiercest competitor in tennis to tears.

“Unforgettable moment,” Nadal said. “The emotions have been there watching all the success, all the moments that came to my mind in that moment. Yeah, I tried to hold the emotion, but some moments was impossible.”

Nadal has achieved what many thought was not possible in this sport. He is now one Slam title shy of Roger Federer‘s record total after outlasting a resilient Medvedev 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. Nadal was up a break of a serve in the third, then later had two break points to serve for the match in that set.

“A crazy match, no?” said Nadal, who is 209-1 when winning the first two sets in a five-set match. “The nerves were so high after having the match almost under control.”

Medvedev, trying to become the first man born in the 1990s to win a Slam, had one of the most impressive major final debuts in defeat. The fifth seed nearly ended a run of 11 straight majors won among Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic. It could have been a turning point going into a new decade.

He was ready to concede when down in that third set.

“In my mind I was already, OK, what do I say in the [runner-up] speech,” said Medvedev, who had never before made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. “Trying to give a fight but not really. … See how far it goes. It went far, but unfortunately it didn’t go my way.”

At 33, Nadal becomes the first man to win five Slams in his 30s. He did so after Federer, 38, and Djokovic, 32, exited the last Slam of the 2010s with injuries. It was on Nadal to extend the Big Three’s streak.

VIDEO: Nadal cries while watching Grand Slam titles montage

Who knows how much longer they will reign, but 2020 is shaping up to be special.

Federer must win the Australian Open in January, or Nadal can at least tie the record with a 13th French Open title in the spring. Nobody has had more success in Australia than seven-time champ Djokovic, who is still in the mix with 16 Slams.

Nadal has said the chase is a motivation, but not an obsession.

“You can’t be all day looking next to you about if one having more or one having little bit less because you will be frustrated,” he said. “All the things that I achieved in my career are much more than what I ever thought and what I ever dream.”

Nadal is on a roll and looking healthier than his fellow living legends. He made the semifinals of all four Grand Slams this year for the first time since 2008, when he overtook Federer for the No. 1 ranking for the first time. This comes after Nadal was pegged years ago to have the shortest career of the trio, given his every-point-is-your-last style and knee problems.

Medvedev, 23, bid for history, one day after Bianca Andreescu became the first woman born in the 2000s to lift a major trophy. It would have been a party-crashing way to end the decade and snap a streak of 61 straight men’s Slams won by 1980s babies.

Not to be for Medvedev, who became a villain of sorts this tournament, giving a covert middle finger to a chair umpire and drawing boos from the crowd all the way through his introduction Sunday. Arthur Ashe Stadium turned as he rallied in the third and fourth sets. It began chanting “Med-ve-dev.”

“I will remember every moment of it,” he said. “I knew I have to leave my heart out there for them.”

He came the closest of any man in the next generation to breaking through thus far. Medvedev’s previous longest Slam match was 3 hours, 54 minutes. Nadal, who had played five matches of 5:05 or longer, took control after the four-hour mark in the fifth set, breaking Medvedev twice in a row. Medvedev broke back one last time before Nadal extinguished him.

“The way you are playing is a big joke,” Medvedev told Nadal at the trophy ceremony. “What you’ve done for tennis in general, I think a hundred million of kids watching you play want to play tennis.”

For Medvedev, taking three sets off Nadal was too much of a task after winning 20 matches since the end of Wimbledon (same amount as Nadal, Federer and Djokovic combined going into Sunday). When Nadal’s baseline game wasn’t working, he went to net. He serve-and-volleyed.

Ten years ago here, Argentine Juan Martin del Potro ended a streak of 18 straight majors won by the Big Three (17 by Federer and Nadal). It brought into question if a shift might start in the 2010s.

Each of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic lulled for a stretch over the next decade. Others broke through. But each of the Big Three pulled back from injury or a drop in form to win more Slams. Namely, all of them since the start of 2017.

“I would love to be the one who have more, yes,” Nadal said. “But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the happiness is the personal satisfaction that you gived your best.”

MORE: Roger Federer undecided on Olympics

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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‘Her eyes would obliterate you’: Bold Isabeau Levito faces skating idol at Grand Prix Final

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The highlight of Isabeau Levito’s season so far came at Skate America in October.

It wasn’t the silver medal Levito won there, in her debut on figure skating’s senior Grand Prix circuit.

It was meeting the reigning world champion – and 2022 Skate America winner – Kaori Sakamoto of Japan.

“She is one of my idols,” Levito said of Sakamoto, who is also the 2022 Olympic bronze medalist.  “Right before her long program at worlds, you could see she was determined and strong and fierce.  Her eyes would obliterate you.

“That look and that fierceness and determination. . .I admire it so much, and I hope to have it someday.”

At only 15, Levito already belies her delicacy of movement on the ice with such powerful determination to reach her aspirations that she gets to meet Sakamoto again this week at the Grand Prix Final in Torino, Italy, where the senior women’s event begins Friday.

“One of my goals for this season was to make the Final, and I’m very glad I reached it,” she said.

She became the youngest U.S. skater to make the final since 14-year-old Caroline Zhang in 2007. (The minimum age has since been raised for all senior international events.) Levito is three years younger than any of the other five qualifiers this year, four of whom are in their 20s.

And her goal there?

“To make the podium,” Levito said.

If she does that, Levito would be the first U.S. woman to make the podium at the Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner won bronze in 2014.

Levito had a similar aim for her senior debut at the U.S. Championships last season, when her stated goal was to make the podium.  In the absence of two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who withdrew with Covid after edging Levito for third in the short program, Levito took second in the free skate and won the bronze medal.

Levito earned one of the six women’s places in the Final by also winning silver at her second Grand Prix event, the MK John Wilson Trophy in England last month.  Her performances there were her best of the year internationally, with personal-best scores for the total and free skate and a season’s best in the short program.

“I think she is progressing very well,” said her coach, Yulia Kuznetsova.

While comparing scores is tricky because of different judging panels, the best scores this season for each of the six women in the Final are separated by fewer than five points, led by Sakamoto at 217.61, with Levito fourth at 215.74.  The closeness of the field is reflected by having five different winners in the six “regular season” Grand Prix events, with Mai Mihara of Japan as the only double winner.

The last time the Grand Prix Final was held, in 2019, three skaters were double winners, accounting for all six regular-season wins. The Covid pandemic forced cancellation in 2020 and 2021.

It’s easy to forget that last spring, after winning the World Junior Championships, Levito was unsure about whether she would move up to the senior level internationally.

“I really wasn’t the person making that decision,” she said. “Yulia and people from U.S. Figure Skating came to that decision, and I was like, `Okay, seniors, sure.’’’

Kuznetsova, who has coached Levito for 11 years, said it was time for the skater to try new challenges.

“Of course, in the beginning we were a little (curious) about how we were going to be judged in moving from juniors to seniors, but after her first international (event), we understood we were in a pretty good position.  We feel confident and comfortable, and we just learn from competition to competition.”

Figure skating has a tradition of young skaters needing to pay their dues with judges, most often reflected in the more subjective program component scores (PCS), sometimes referred to as the “artistic” mark.  Levito’s mean PCS marks this season have been respectably in the mid-8s (out of perfect 10s), with Sakamoto the only skater to have her mean PCS in the low 9s.

The need to raise her PCS and the ban of the Russian female jump phenoms from international competition because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine mean Levito has sensibly put quadruple jumps and triple Axels on the back burner.  Russian women had won gold at five of the last six Grand Prix Finals and 13 of the 18 medals.

RELATED: 2022 Grand Prix Final figure skating TV, live stream schedule

Only one woman, Rion Sumiyashi of Japan, has tried a quad in a senior event this season, and her three attempts were all badly flawed.

“Developing my skating and maturing are higher on my priorities,” Levito said.  “A triple Axel and/or quads will come in time.  We’re not trying to rush the process.”

At Kuznetsova’s behest, one of the world’s most acclaimed artists on ice, 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy, spent time last spring at the New Jersey rink where Levito trains. Kuznetsova said Kostner was there for a week.

Levito posted a photo with Kostner on Instagram in June with a caption that read,  “It was a wonderful experience skating with you!”  Yet she and Kuznetsova are reluctant to discuss Kostner’s visit, with the coach saying only, “We really didn’t take any lessons (from Carolina).”

“I (made contact with) Isabeau through a mutual friend in 2018, and I’ve been in contact with her and her family ever since,” Kostner said in a text message.

“This spring I was in the area and I popped by for a visit. After many phone calls, we finally met in person.  I love sharing my experience with her and am thrilled to see her grow as a skater and as a young woman.”

Maybe Team Levito simply wanted even more of a karmic connection with Italy, home to not only this Grand Prix Final but the 2026 Winter Olympics, with figure skating to be held in Milan.  The skater, a home schooler who will finish the tenth grade this month, has been brushing up on Italian with help from both Duolingo and her mother, Chiara Garberi, a native of Milan who moved from Italy to the United States in 1997.

“Growing up, my mother always spoke to me in Italian, and I would reply in English,” Levito said.  “Now I think, `Why did I do that?’  I still understand everything in Italian, but when I open my mouth to speak, a lot of the vocabulary escapes me.  I’m kind of relearning Italian.  I’m getting there.”

Levito is likely to get to the 2026 Olympics, even if such predictions are risky with more than three years before those next Winter Games.  At this point, with all three U.S. women’s singles skaters from the 2022 Olympic team having stopped competing, either permanently or temporarily, Levito is clearly the leading U.S. woman.

That means she will go to the 2023 U.S. Championships as the title favorite.  It is a far different position from last season, when Levito was not old enough for Olympic consideration and could skate without the pressure of trying to make the team.

“I’m not concerned about the attention from being a favorite,” she said.  “I’m just really excited to hopefully do better than last year.”

If that is Levito’s goal, figure on her being determined enough to make it.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.