Rafael Nadal survived a spirited comeback by Daniil Medvedev to win the United States Open final, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, and claim his 19th Grand Slam title on Sunday.
Nadal crept closer to Roger Federer’s record of 20 major championships.
The relentless Nadal, a Spaniard who was once considered a clay-court specialist, captured his fourth U.S. Open championship, all since Federer won the last of his five in 2008. Nadal also won the 2009 Australian Open, giving him five major titles on hardcourts, and he also captured two Wimbledon titles on grass.
But Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian playing his first Grand Slam final, nearly denied Nadal, rallying from a two-sets-to-none deficit to give the U.S. Open its first five-set men’s singles final in seven years.
A lanky No. 5 seed with a beguiling game, Medvedev was riding a wave of momentum from the summer hardcourts season. He reached the finals in Washington, Montreal and Mason, Ohio, before coming to Flushing Meadows, where he briefly ran afoul of the fans.
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.
Medvedev has played 23 matches since July 31, and spent three more hours on court leading up to the final than Nadal did (15 hours compared with 12).
The signs of fatigue were apparent in the second set Sunday, after Medvedev missed out on opportunities to win the first. Nadal played more aggressively, with more success, pinching inside the baseline when possible to create piercing angles.
But with the second-seeded Nadal seemingly headed for a straight-sets victory, Medvedev discovered a new gear, turning a potential rout into a battle of attrition.
Nadal broke Medvedev to take 3-2 lead in the third set, but Medvedev broke back and 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.
With Nadal serving at 5-6, Medved won the first three points, including a sizzling forehand down the line at 0-15 that 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 just the second return winner of the match, 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 he saved.
At 2-2 in the fifth, Medvedev led, 40-0, on serve, before slipping, hitting three unforced errors in the next four points to give Nadal a break point. Medvedev saved that first break point with an ace, but Nadal earned a second two points later, and won it with a staggering 28-stroke rally that he sealed with a backhand winner.
Nadal consolidated the break with a hold for 4-2, finishing with a backhand volley winner. He earned a second break to go ahead by 5-2, but he was broken when serving for the championship, double-faulting on break point after losing his first serve for a time violation.
Nadal gained his first championship point on Medvedev’s serve in the next game, which Medvedev saved with a backhand winner. He got a second championship point and hit a forehand return into the net. Medvedev held, and Nadal served for the title again.
Medvedev earned a break point in that game too. But Nadal saved it and created another championship point with a drop shot that Medvedev could not return. Medvedev’s return was long to give Nadal the championship after 4 hours 50 minutes.
With Nadal’s victory over Medvedev, the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic have combined to win the last 12 Grand Slam events. The last player to spoil the party was Stan Wawrinka, who won the 2016 U.S. Open. Since then, no one outside of Nadal (with 5), Djokovic (4) and Federer (3) has been able to barge in.
During the same period, there have been 10 different women’s champions, including Bianca Andreescu, 19, who beat Serena Williams on Saturday to become the first player born in the 2000s to win a major title.
But on the men’s side, the 21st century still very much belongs to three great players born in the 1980s.
For many years there was doubt about Nadal’s ability to catch Federer, especially because he seemed injury prone. But health has been a recent ally to Nadal, and with his inexorable grip on the French Open, that doubt has been replaced by an air of inevitability.
Nadal has won 12 French Opens, including the last three, and at 33 he is five years younger than Federer. What’s more, Nadal holds a 24-17 lead over Federer in head-to-head competition, although Federer has turned the tables by winning seven of their last eight meetings.
Nadal could draw even with Federer as soon as next year, but Djokovic is not far behind. 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.
“I would love to be the one to have more, yes, but you cannot be all day frustrated or all day thinking about what’s your neighbor have better than you,” Nadal said on Friday after he beat Matteo Berrettini in a semifinal. “You have to be happy with yourself. You have to do your way. If you are the one to achieve more, fantastic. If not, at least I give my best during my career.”