Moments after winning one of the most grueling tennis matches of his life, Rafael Nadal sat in his chair, a few tears streaming down his face while the large video screen showed highlights of his remarkable career.
When the camera shifted to a live shot of Nadal watching the tribute, the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium roared and Nadal dropped his head into his hands. The trickle of tears turned into weeping.
Exhausted, overjoyed and relieved, the second-seeded Nadal needed every bit of his fighter’s spirit to overcome No. 5 Daniil Medvedev, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, in 4 hours 50 minutes to win the United States Open for the fourth time and capture his 19th Grand Slam title in utterly gripping fashion.
On the final point, a service return by Medvedev that sailed long, Nadal collapsed on his back, lay spread eagle for several moments and screamed into the night air.
One might think that winning so many major titles would become routine. But Nadal, 33, had to work as hard as he ever has, thanks to Medvedev’s courageous comeback from being down two sets to none to force a fifth set. Afterward Nadal called it one of the most emotional moments of his career.
“The last three hours of the match were very, very intense, both mentally and physically,” he said, “At the end, with the video and the crowd, it was amazing. All these facts made the moment super special.”
The 19 titles moved Nadal to within one of Roger Federer’s men’s record for major singles championships, and raised the specter that he could catch his 38-year-old rival, perhaps as soon as next year.
For many years there was doubt about Nadal’s ability to draw even with Federer, especially because he seemed injury prone. But durability has been a recent ally of Nadal’s, and with his inexorable grip on the French Open, that doubt has been replaced by a whiff of inevitability.
In addition to his four U.S. Opens, Nadal has won 12 French Opens, two Wimbledons and one Australian Open. At 33, he is five years younger than Federer. Novak Djokovic is not out of the picture, either. He has 16 major titles, and at 32 is the youngest of the group.
When Djokovic is of sound body and mind, he is close to unbeatable. He showed that by winning four of the previous five majors, but he had to pull out of the U.S. Open in the fourth round because of a shoulder injury.
It is not unreasonable to project that in the years to come, the order of the Big Three in the record books could be reversed. Nadal’s win also extended the Big Three’s streak of consecutive Grand Slam titles to 12, dating back to Stan Wawrinka’s win at the 2016 U.S. Open.
Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian playing his first Grand Slam final, came ever so close, though. His pulsating effort Sunday transformed him, perhaps forever, from tournament villain to admirable loser.
During his third-round match against Feliciano López, Medvedev was booed after he angrily snatched a towel from a ball person and then was shown on the court video screen gesturing with his middle finger. After that match, he taunted the ornery crowd by telling them its boos motivated him to win.
But with each subsequent match in New York, Medvedev endeared himself more to the fans, culminating in Sunday’s thriller, and he told the fans that their positive support this time provide him with the incentive to keep fighting, no matter how daunting the challenge.
“I knew I had to leave my heart out there for them,” he said.
He was down two sets and a service break in the third set, and said at that point he was going over in his mind what he would say in his post-match loser’s speech, which presumably was going to happen soon.
“I was thinking, ‘O.K., in 20 minutes I have to give a speech. What do I say?’,” Medvedev recalled.
But playing with newfound abandon, he discovered a different gear, turning a potential rout into a battle of attrition. He broke back against the surprised Nadal and then held for 4-3. Nadal had two break points at 4-4, but Medvedev fought them off, the highlight a 28-shot rally that took both players to and fro until Nadal hit a forehand into the net.
That elicited cheers from the fans, who chanted Medvedev’s name just a week after his brief villainous turn, and he rode the momentum almost until the very end of the match, which required 341 total points.
“I managed to give huge fight to one of the best players in the history of our sport,” he said. “Have to give myself credit.”
With Nadal serving at 5-6 in the third set, Medved won the first three points, including a sizzling forehand down the line at 0-15 that signaled his new aggressive intent and caused the crowd to erupt. Then, at 15-40, he charged in to hit a backhand winner and take the set.
In the fourth set, Medvedev started to serve-and-volley more to shorten rallies, but the set proceeded on serve until the 10th game. With Nadal serving at 4-5, Medvedev sealed the 52-minute set with a return winner, snapping a backhand down the line past an approaching Nadal.
Medvedev had chances to pull ahead early in the fifth set, earning three break points in Nadal’s first service game, all of which Nadal saved by summoning his experience and strength. But he admitted he was worried about the outcome.
“Of course, when you have break point against in the beginning of the fifth and the last two sets,” he said. “You are in trouble. But I really tried to avoid this thought.”
At 2-2 in the fifth, Medvedev led, 40-0, on serve, before hitting three unforced errors in the next four points to give Nadal a break point. Medvedev saved it with an ace, but Nadal earned a second break point and won it with a staggering 28-stroke rally that he sealed with a backhand winner.
But even after Nadal gained a second break to go up by 5-2, the drama was not over. He was called for a time violation and double-faulted on break point, giving Medvedev one last chance. Medvedev saved two match points and held for 4-5, but the match was on the champion’s racket again.
Nadal faced down a break point that could have swayed the match back in Medvedev’s favor, and then at deuce he carved out a perfect forehand slice drop shot to give him his third match point. He fired a 124-mile-per-hour serve that Medvedev could not handle.
All that was left was a well-earned handshake, a standing ovation for two worthy competitors, and some tears.
“This trophy means everything to me today,” he said. “Personal satisfaction, the way that I resisted all these tough moments, is very high. I normally try to hold the emotions, but at the end, for all these facts, it was impossible today.”
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting.