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.
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.”
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