Unlike at his beloved Roland Garros, success did not arrive overnight for Rafael Nadal on the unforgiving hard courts of the US Open, where he surged to within a title of Roger Federer’s all-time men’s Grand Slam singles record Sunday.
Nadal’s epic victory over Daniil Medvedev secured the Spaniard his fourth US Open crown, leaving him one shy of the Open era record of five titles belonging to long-time rival Federer, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors.
But it was not an instant connection between Nadal, his notoriously suspect knees, and the year’s final Grand Slam tournament.
“I think at the beginning of my career have been some tough moments here, losing matches,” said Nadal, who failed to reach a single semi-final in his first five trips to the US Open.
During that span, Nadal would claim at least one singles title at the other three majors, but it was not until his eighth visit to Flushing Meadows that he would get his hands on an elusive US Open trophy.
“Since a long time ago, every time that I came here I felt comfortable. I felt very competitive and fighting for the big things,” Nadal said during his run to a second US Open title in three years.
“I feel comfortable here, I like the atmosphere, I like the crowd. I feel a big energy when I am playing in this Arthur Ashe Stadium.”
Nadal’s latest coronation, his 19th Grand Slam title, reinforced the fact the slower courts of the US Open and his obliging knees have turned New York into a land of opportunity.
Vanquished opponents this past fortnight struggled to find superlatives befitting the 33-year-old as he capped one of his greatest Grand Slam years in thrilling style.
Diego Schwartzman suggested Nadal was “like a lion in the middle of the jungle” while Matteo Berrettini called him “the greatest fighter ever in this sport.”
“It’s tough to find words. He’s one of the greatest champions in the history of our sport. He’s just a machine, a beast on the court,” Medvedev said.
Victory on Sunday moved Nadal to within one Grand Slam title of Federer, who, at 38, is more than four years older, but the Spaniard downplayed the importance of catching the Swiss legend.
“Of course, I would love to be the one who achieves more Grand Slams, but I still sleep very well without being the one who has more Grand Slams,” Nadal said, with typical humility.
His Grand Slam CV boasts 12 French Opens, four US Open titles, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.
His 2008 Wimbledon final triumph over Federer is widely regarded as the greatest-ever final at the majors.
Along with Federer and Novak Djokovic, the other member of tennis’ “Big Three”, Nadal has comfortably passed the $100 million prize money barrier.
Tennis has been good for Nadal but he has been just as influential as a key driver of the sport’s growth.
He won an under-12 regional crown at age eight and by 12 had captured Spanish and European age-group junior titles.
By 15, he had turned professional and, two years later, won his first match against Federer.
At 19, he won the 2005 French Open on his debut.
Nadal has Wimbledon crowns in 2008 and 2010, an Australian Open title in 2009 and completed the career Grand Slam in 2010 by defeating Djokovic in the US Open final, becoming the youngest in the Open era to complete the four-event career sweep.
Only Nadal and Andre Agassi can say they have a career Grand Slam and an Olympic men’s singles gold medal, Nadal having claimed his in 2008 at Beijing.
He has also led Spain to four Davis Cups.
Knee and wrist injuries have taken a toll throughout his career, however, costing him nine Slam appearances.
After he failed to even reach a Slam semi-final in 2015 and 2016 some figured his greatest moments were behind him.
But Nadal roared into the 2017 Australian Open final, losing to Federer, then captured a record 10th French Open crown in June that year, setting the stage for another title run at the US Open.
Those struggles receded further into distant memories this year as he reached the semi-finals at all four majors for the first time since 2008, his five-set win over Medvedev moving him a step closer to history.