“The way you are playing is a big joke,” Daniil Medvedev said after losing an epic five-set US Open final to Rafael Nadal.
He was smiling when he said it but the tears would come soon. The 23-year-old Russian had come within a touching distance of a Grand Slam title but it was the 33-year-old who ground out a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 win in the five-set thriller.
A few minutes earlier, no one was laughing as Nadal got a time violation for taking too long to serve and was broken while serving for the championship. This was the second time he lost a service for violating the shot clock time limit. In fact, he got his first time violation in the very first game of the final – almost five hours before this one. In the next game, Medvedev saved two championship points on serve to stay in the contest.
Now, Nadal maybe the poster child of the never-say-die spirit in tennis, but his body had too often in the past given up when his spirit was willing. Just last year, he had retired from the US Open semi-finals with an injury that ended his 2018 season. He had endured another injury layoff earlier this year.
Even though Medvedev had played 23 hard-court matches in the last four weeks, if he could physically outlast Nadal, he was in with a chance. The Russian had made a statement of intent by showing no stage fright and forcing Nadal to alter his game plan very early in the final. But he needed a trainer in the fifth set to massage his thigh, for the injury to his quadriceps that had troubled him in the quarter-final against Stanislas Wawrinka.
The Spaniard faced another break point while trying to serve out the match and it was evident that he was exhausted physically. But at no point during the five-set, five-hour epic did it look like he was out of the fight. Not when he was broken early in the match, not when he was pushed to a decider after having virtual match points in the third set, even when he was spraying errors in the fifth set.
He simply didn’t give in. Medvedev had three break points in the second game of the fifth set and then three game points in the fifth game of the fifth set. Both times, the Spaniard prevailed with his trademark mix of grit and grunting groundstrokes to build a lead.
By the end, it was this refusal to give up that won him the title as much as his forehand or serve. Medvedev fought till the very end with renewed energy and remarkable endurance, but the battle was ultimately won by the strongest warrior on the ATP Tour.
The numbers will say that Medvedev had more winners than Nadal at 75-62 and had nine more aces at 14. But against a player who can match Nadal at the baseline and beyond, it was the points at the net that made all the difference.
Nadal won 78% of the points he played at the net, moving forward 66 times, 20 points of those as he tried to serve and volley. Despite the lung-busting rallies from both sides, it was the older competitor who had the slight edge in this department as well: with a 36-33 record in rallies lasting nine shots or more and 40-33 in in rallies of 5-8 shots.
An epic in four parts
In the riveting contest of bruising exchanges from the baseline and deft touches at the net, the five action-packed sets saw points that were both hustle and heist. Some earned with brawn, others with brain.
The match can be divided into four parts: Medvedev’s gumption. Nadal’s recalibration. Medvedev’s grit. Nadal’s resilience.
When the Russian seemed to be more than willing to stay in the punishing rallies and counter-punch, Nadal recalibrated his game plan in the first set itself. The youngster put the ball back in play while Nadal struggled on the first serve as they traded early breaks.
In response, the Spaniard began to take the pace and depth off his strokes, tried serve-and-volley with success, pushed his opponent with drop shots and broke him in the final game of the first set to grind out a lead. The change in strategy showed just how smart a tactician Nadal is.
But after the intense first set and seemingly routine second, Medvedev came out to play. He started making the big serves, getting returns against first serve and staying in the point to finally take a set.
As many on Twitter pointed out, he became only the second male player born in the 1990s to even win a set in a Grand Slam final. It would have been enough of a boost, but the dogged Russian had other plans.
The fourth set started with Medvedev battling from 0-40 down and then getting a break point in the next game which was saved. After a tight few games, his blistering groundstrokes gave him a crucial break to force a decider.
This was an important test of mindset for both players. The younger man had never won the fifth set of a best-of-five match before this while Nadal was a veteran of those with plenty of success.
The fifth set saw drama as Nadal lost his cool at Medvedev taking his time to serve, rallied the crowd after saving three break points, and was furious at the time violations. But instead of all of this getting to him, it had the opposite effect as he found his hidden reserve of resolve – stored largely for fifth sets and matches against other members of the Big Three – and raised his level.
After Medvedev returned long on his third championship point, Nadal fell flat on the ground overcome with emotion. There was a lovely moment between the two competitors before the Spaniard broke down in tears.
A fourth US Open, after winning it to finish his Career Golden Slam in 2010. A 19th Grand Slam title, the closest he has ever been to Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20. A fifth Major after turning 30, another first for him.
After being crushed in the first Grand Slam final of the year by Novak Djokovic, he reigned supreme in the last one. After withdrawing from the early season North American hard-court swing with injury, he was unbeaten in the second half with a Masters 1000 and a Major.
The only man to reach semi-finals or better at all four Grand Slams in 2019, Rafael Nadal showed that no matter how many times he is knocked down by his frail body, his warrior spirit will always find a way to triumph.