By Chuck Culpepper in New York
In one of those occasional and stupendous sporting events that winds up flattering the runner-up every ounce as much as the winner, Rafael Nadal spent Sunday evening withstanding a donnybrook rich in gasping points. A U.S. Open final almost peerless built to such heights that the far-fetched story within it seemed to outweigh even the long-term significance it caused.
Daniil Medvedev, the 6-foot-6, 23-year-old Russian who looks as if he has never encountered a fat gram, spent the 4 hours 50 minutes of Nadal’s 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 win showing that his beanpole frame houses a humongous heart. He ratified his breakthrough summer on North American hard courts that upgraded him to No. 5 in the world with a comeback that seemed to uproot all entrenched tennis understanding.
He kept the classic churning hours after a third set in which, he said, “I was already thinking, Which speech do I give?” He matched the fight of the sport’s utmost fighter, until Nadal said, “The way he was able to fight, to change the rhythm of the match, was just incredible.” And he, Medvedev, wound up saying, “I’ll definitely remember it even when I am 70 years old.”
He looked like that rare, shouting No. 4 in the world in the new rankings behind the long-impenetrable big three of Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer, and he turned an Arthur Ashe Stadium ticket to his first Grand Slam final into a privilege.
First, Medvedev plunged understandably, if gamely, into a two-set, one-break deficit — a crypt, really, against a force long known as unyielding. Then, Medvedev reached into a deep bag of varied shots — serve-and-volley, drop shots, drop volleys, disguises, blasted returns, futuristic angles, preposterous gets — until the force himself got rattled into time violations and near-violations and the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd started chanting something unimaginable.
That came late in a 63-minute hell of a third set, just as Medvedev helped usher the match into its mind-bending caliber. Given the kerfuffles between U.S. Open crowds and Medvedev earlier in the tournament — a middle finger made a cameo appearance — that came as its own upset.
All of that upstaged, at least briefly, what it meant when Medvedev’s last whack at a forehand return, on Nadal’s third championship point and his 124-mph serve, floated out and sent Nadal plunging to the concrete. It meant that a Grand Slam title tally between Federer and Nadal that used to stand at 4-0, then 7-1, then 12-3, then 16-6, had narrowed all the way to a dizzying 20-19 as of Sunday night in the final Grand Slam tennis match of the exhausted decade.
Long after taking on fame at 19 at the 2005 French Open and spurring rare chatter about clam-digger pants, Nadal had a fourth U.S. Open title to complement his one from the Australian Open, his two from Wimbledon and his 12 from the French Open. It brought the pillar of tennis pugnacity from the Spanish paradise of Mallorca to the closest point in this 16-year chase since Federer led 1-0 in 2003 when, at 21, the Swiss artist won Wimbledon over Mark Philippousis’s frightening serve and received as rewards, among other things, a Swiss cow.
Now, it might be the abundant Federer fans having a cow.
Yet even as the giant screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium toured back through Nadal’s 19 titles in what must have been an exhausting bout of editing, and after Nadal appeared to weep in his chair, Medvedev emerged further as a star. “When I was looking at the screen,” he joked to the crowd, “and they were showing like, number one, number two, number nineteen, I was like, ‘If I would [have won], what would they show?’ ”
Actually, they could have shown highlights from what just happened, when Medvedev forged the first five-set U.S. Open men’s final since 2012 and looked primed to become the first U.S. champion from two sets down in 70 years, since Pancho Gonzales chased down Ted Schroeder in 1949. He caused Nadal to reach deeply into his exhaustion for his third five-set final win among the 19 and his first since the 2009 Australian Open against Federer.
He subjected Nadal to what the latter called “one of the most emotional nights of my tennis career,” one in which “the nerves were so high after having the match almost under control,” in which “the last three hours of the match have been very, very intense.”
Winners wound up 75-62 to Medvedev. Variety turned up in his 22 for 29 on serve-and-volleys, his 50 for 74 on net points, almost a match for Nadal’s 51 for 66. “I was continuing to try to try something, to find something new,” Medvedev said. The players seemed to run miles.
With Nadal serving at 3-2 in that third set, the evening supposedly winding down, he engaged Nadal in a 24-wallop rally on deuce that ended in a wild Nadal error, a sitting forehand volley whacked wide, and may have precipitated Nadal’s ensuing backhand error. With Nadal serving at 5-6 in that same set, exchanges of 18, 12 and 10 shots came with heat, and Medvedev crushed a forehand up the line for love-40, then knocked a backhand clean winner for the set.
With Nadal serving at 4-5 in the fourth set, Medvedev looked like some optical illusion as he ran down a near-winner and redirected an impossible forehand back across for a pass. That got him to love-40, and one point later he took a 107-mph serve wide and, operating so far off the court he could have reached to concessions for a champagne flute, sent a backhand return that roamed through the air beside the court, passed Nadal by a wide distance and plopped down, good, in the corner.
To anyone who has followed the sport and its hardened realities of the three remarkable players who lead it, this looked downright fictional. Nadal began to look sub-Nadal. He kept holding up his hand while returning to recollect time and breath. He committed two of his three time violations on serve, costing him two faults and leading to one break point. He stared at a break point in the second game in the fifth set, and he said, “Of course, when you have break point against in the fifth set, you are in trouble.”
Finally, Medvedev cracked slightly while serving at 2-3 and leading 40-love. Nadal reaped 15 of the next 19 points and got to 5-2. But even then — even then! — Medvedev broke for 5-3, held serve in a three-deuce tussle with two match points saved for 5-4, and got to a break point — whoa! — before Nadal claimed the last three points.
Somehow, a 19th Grand Slam title had become something secondary, on one of those occasional sports nights when a champion ends up saying of a runner-up, as Nadal said of Medvedev, “The way he played is a champion way.”
By Samantha Pell in Washington
Nadal wins in five sets, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4
After winning his fourth U.S. Open title since 2010, Rafael Nadal started to get emotional watching the video at Arthur Ashe Stadium as it replayed all 19 of his major championships. Fixated on the screen with tears in his eyes, Nadal kept on shaking his head, almost in disbelief.
“[It has been] one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career,” Nadal said at the trophy presentation.
Daniil Medvedev, the runner-up who got an extended round of applause during the trophy presentation for his nearly five-hour bout with Nadal, started his interview with ESPN by praising Nadal’s performance and career.
“I was like, if I were to win, what would they show?” Medvedev joked about watching Nadal’s tribute video.
He continued by then praising the fans, at whom he admitted lashing out earlier in the tournament, becoming the “villain” of the U.S. Open. “I know earlier in the tournament I said something kind of in the bad way,” Medvedev said. “But … it is because of your energy guys, I am here in the final. … Because of you guys, I was fighting like hell.”
Fifth set: Nadal up, 5-4
Medvedev is relentless. He wins a second straight game with his back against the wall to force Nadal to serve for the championship once again.
Fifth set: Nadal up, 5-3
In what could be the turning point of the match, Nadal breaks Medvedev in the fifth game, coming back from love-40 after a 28-shot rally to go up a break in the fifth set. Fans, who were continuously behind Medvedev as he rallied in the third and fourth sets, are now voicing their support for Nadal, who seems to have mustered a final surge of energy. He holds serve to go up 4-2, and then breaks Medvedev again to go up 5-2, until Medvedev breaks back as Nadal was called for another time violation. Both players are gritting this one out, with the crowd constantly chanting Nadal’s name.
Fifth set: Medvedev up, 2-1
Passing the four-hour mark in a tactically brilliant match by both players, Medvedev, who has never won a match in five sets, has somehow kept pace with a fatigued Nadal. The Spaniard was dinged for his second time violation of the match during the second game of the fifth set, but he was able to win the necessary point on a second serve. Medvedev is attempting to become the first man to come from two sets down to win a U.S. Open final since 1949.
Fourth set: Medvedev wins, 6-4
Nadal appeared in total control of his service games until Medvedev broke to win the fourth set and force this Grand Slam final to go the distance. In a match in which it looked like Nadal had seized control after winning the first two sets, Medvedev now has the momentum — and, surprisingly, the crowd — on his side. Trainers looked at Medvedev’s upper thighs before the fifth set of a match that began about four hours ago.
Fourth set: Medvedev up, 5-4
After Nadal holds at love, Medvedev answers the easy service game with one of his own to move within a game of claiming the fourth set. Now Nadal will look to hold to stay in the fourth set by holding serve one more time.
Fourth set: Medvedev up, 3-2
Another gutsy hold by Medvedev, saving a break point. Medvedev ultimately holds after a Nadal forehand error and things are starting to get tense at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as the match nears the four-hour mark.
The crowd comes alive
After Medvedev walked onto the court to scattered boos from the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the crowd has now rallied behind the “tournament villain” with rousing applause throughout the third set for a man who had been jeered earlier in the tournament. Pushing into the fourth set after receiving a standing ovation, the youngster is being urged on by the crowd as he leads 1-0 early in the fourth.
Third set: Medvedev wins, 7-5, trails two sets to one
Don’t look now but Daniil Medvedev just won the third set with a remarkable series of rallies and a dramatic break of serve. He became only the second man currently under the age of 30 to win a set in a Grand Slam final. Nadal had multiple chances to pull away after going up a break early in the set, but he failed to close the younger man out. Medvedev has never won a match after being two sets down.
Third set: Medvedev up, 6-5
After going up a break early in the set, Nadal now must hold serve to stay in the third set. With the rallies getting longer and longer as this set drags on, fatigue and physical exhaustion look to be playing a factor for both men. And the New York crowd, which booed Medvedev earlier in the tournament, is now rallying behind him and chanting his name.
Third set: Medvedev leads, 4-3
Big cheers from the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium after Medvedev breaks Nadal back to even the third set. The Russian isn’t done yet, holding serve to take a 4-3 lead, with the set back on serve.
Third set: Nadal up, 3-2
After winning the first two sets, Nadal breaks in the fifth game of the third set and the path is clearing for his 19th Grand Slam title. On break point, Medvedev couldn’t return a strong backhand from Nadal, the youngster’s 32nd unforced error of the match.
Second set: Nadal wins, 6-3, leads two sets to none
Rafael Nadal is now one set away from winning his fourth U.S. Open title after beating Medvedev in 48 minutes in the second set. The Spaniard has a 208-1 record in majors when winning the first two sets. Medvedev looked tired early in the second set, and despite testing Nadal in the ninth game, couldn’t record a break. The young Russian will have a long uphill climb to win his first major final.
Second set: Nadal leads, 4-2
Nadal breaks serve with a deep return, and he now looks to be in control of the match. Medvedev is switching rackets for the next game, and Nadal has visibly started to wear the young Russian down. The Spaniard seems to have the first-time finalist right where he wants him, and now he’s closing in on the second set.
Second set: Nadal up, 2-1
Medvedev is really making Nadal work for every point here in the second set, and the youngster shows no signs of going away. With better serves, Nadal was able to hold at 30 after he had two well-placed serves — one down the line and the other out wide. His first serve percentage, poor early, is now up to 54 percent. The second set remains on serve.
First set: Nadal wins, 7-5
After an hour and three minutes, Nadal grinds out the first set. It’s been a gritty back-and-forth battle, and Medvedev, new to this stage, will look to recover in the second set. Nadal had a run of 14 consecutive service points in the first set as he settled in after a rocky start. Medvedev fell behind repeatedly in the set’s final game, rallying before Nadal won an 18-stroke rally to break serve and claim the set.
First set: Medvedev leads, 2-1
A solid start for Medvedev, getting the match’s first break of the serve in the third game. After Nadal took the first game, Medvedev came roaring back, pushing away any nerves from appearing in his first major final and taking the following two games. Nadal was issued a time violation while serving in the first game, and nearly had another in the third. The U.S. Open announced in 2018 it would enforce tennis’s time rules via a 25-second “serve clock.”