New York: Moments after winning one of the most gruelling 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 US 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 down to force a fifth set. Afterward Nadal called it one of the most emotional moments of his career.
It was also one of the most compelling US Open men’s finals in recent years.
“The last three hours of the match were very, very intense, both mentally and physically,” Nadal 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 spectre that he could catch his 38-year-old rival 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 But durability has been a recent ally of Nadal’s, and with his inexorable grip on the French Open, that doubt has been replaced by a whiff of inevitability.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 US Opens, Nadal has won 12 French Opens, two Wimbledons and one Australian Open. 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.
Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian playing his first Grand Slam final, came ever so close to barging his way into the champions club. His pulsating effort on Sunday transformed him, perhaps forever, from tournament villain to noble loser with a promising future.
During Medvedev’s third-round match against Feliciano Lopez, he 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 crowd by telling them the boos motivated him to win.
Medvedev, who had never reached the fourth round of a major tournament until last week, was the best player on tour during the summer hard court season, reaching four straight finals and going 20-3.
Medvedev is a frustrating opponent who capitalises on unpredictability with a variety of shots, mixing speeds, spins and drop shots along with a hard, flat backhand. But when he was down two sets and a service break in the third, the tactical thought foremost on his mind was how would he handle his post-match loser’s interview.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, in 20 minutes I have to give a speech. What do I say?’” Medvedev recalled.
He ended up speaking nearly three hours later. After his earlier missteps, Medvedev eventually endeared himself to the New York fans, culminating in Sunday’s thriller, and he told them that their positive support provided 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. “I managed to give huge fight to one of the best players in the history of our sport. Have to give myself credit.”
Nadal concurred. “I was in trouble at one point,” he said. “But I really tried to avoid this thought.
“This trophy means everything to me. Personal satisfaction, the way that I resisted all these tough moments, is very high. I normally try to hold the emotions, but for all these facts, it was impossible today.”