For his entire career, Rafael Nadal has been chasing Roger Federer’s grip on tennis history. Now, after capturing his fourth US Open crown, Nadal is closer than he’s ever been.
Fans might try to point out that Nadal had a bit of an easier draw than Federer or Novak Djokovic in this year’s US Open, but that doesn’t matter. Nadal beat everyone in his path, even those he struggled with a bit. The Spaniard was a bit fortunate that his second-round opponent, Thanasi Kokkinakis, withdrew before their match with an injury, but that’s part of the sport. Nadal beat all of his challengers, and reached the final against Daniil Medvedev, who was the most successful player on tour all summer.
The pair met a few weeks ago, in the final of the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Medvedev looked competitive early, but eventually fell, 6-3 6-0. Would this final be any different? What could Medvedev do differently? And, possibly most importantly, what would the Russian have left in the tank, after almost 15 hours on court coming into this match?
US Open Final: Rafael Nadal vs Daniil Medvedev
Nadal started the match slowly, going down a very early break. He earned it back for 2-2, though, and really looked to control the match from there. Medvedev played great defense and played very well behind the baseline, but that type of tennis can’t really beat Nadal. The Russian stayed in rallies and won some highlight-reel points, but over the long run, Nadal’s tactics came through.
Nadal broke through the Medvedev serve at 5*-6 in the first set to win it, and then broke early in the second. Medvedev was never able to get the break back, and a relatively quick second set ended in Nadal’s favor as well. After a bit under two hours, Nadal was one set away from history.
Medvedev fought hard, but he seemed no match for Nadal. He held twice early in the set, but Nadal broke for 3-2, and the match looked over. Medvedev played an incredible game, though, and (aided by a tough Nadal error) broke right back. Both held until Medvedev took a 6-5 lead. Then, with Nadal serving, Medvedev brought out some incredible hitting to open up set points. Nadal saved one, but the Russian got a good return on the second, and a backhand winner took the set.
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The fourth set was a less intense affair. There were a few tough service games, and Medvedev had to save break points early, but the set overall was less emotional than the earlier ones. That didn’t change until crunch time, when Medvedev got an easy hold for a 5-4 lead. Nadal served and looked to cruise in the following game, going up 40-15. But then an error, a great Medvedev winner, and another Nadal error set up set point. Medvedev promptly took it with an incredible return winner, and we were going five.
Medvedev opened up the set with a relatively easy hold, though it included several complaints about how much time Nadal was taking. The fans seemed to realize Nadal’s delay as well, starting to jeer at him as he took his time to start his first service game. Medvedev opened up break chances in that game–and got a second serve on one after a Nadal time violation–but the Spaniard held. The pair traded holds after that–the points were intense, but neither was under pressure. In the following game–which included more complaints from Medvedev over Nadal slowing down play, the Spaniard finally earned the break after yet another grinding rally.
For the first time in over two hours–since the exact same spot in the third set, Nadal was up a break, and three games away from a 19th Major title. Unlike in the third set, Nadal responded with an immediate easy hold. Medvedev went up 30-0 in the ensuing game, but the Spaniard took the next four points and a 5-2 lead, just one game away. Medvedev kept up the fight, and he seemed to have infinite energy. After more grueling rallies–and a double fault due to yet another time violation–he got one of the two breaks back.
Medvedev had to hold serve once more, though. He took the first point, but then fell into a 15-30 hole. The Russian pulled it to 30-30, but lost the next long rally. He saved the championship point with a good serve and follow-up, but lost the following one to give Nadal a second. Medvedev saved that one as well with an unreturned huge second serve. After one more deuce, Medvedev took two straight points and held for 5-4. Nadal would have to serve this one out.
Medvedev took the opening point with a strong approach shot, but Nadal responded with a crazy sliced backhand winner to get it to 15-15. Nadal gave away the next point with an error, but took the following one with a strong serve. After a forehand went long, Nadal had to save a break point, which he did. A good serve opened up his next championship point.
The Spaniard took it, and Rafael Nadal was US Open champion for the fourth time.
Looking to the future
For the first time since Federer won his 16th Slam–all the way back at the 2010 Australian Open–someone is within just one Major of Roger Federer’s record total. It is also the first time since Andre Agassi’s retirement in 2006 that an active player has been within one Major of Federer. And, with Nadal already considered a prohibitive favorite at next year’s French Open, we could soon see someone tied with Federer for the first time since Federer tied Pete Sampras’ then-record of 14 Majors.
Nothing has stopped Federer and Nadal fans from debating who is the greatest of all time for the past decade, and this likely won’t change anything. Tennis fans love this debate. This won’t change anyone’s opinions, but it does make one of Federer’s most impressive records under serious immediate threat.
Of course, Federer fans do have to thank Nadal for something. Nadal is now just 640 points behind Novak Djokovic for the World #1 ranking. Federer’s other impressive all-time record, his 310 weeks at #1, is under threat from Djokovic, who is currently at 267 weeks and counting. Nadal has earned almost 2,000 more points than Djokovic this year, which means that it would take a very strong final few months of the season for Djokovic to retain his top ranking spot.
If Nadal can end the year at #1, it would be his fifth season ending with the top ranking. That would tie him with Federer and Djokovic for second all-time, trailing only Pete Sampras’ six. Unless someone from the younger generation steps up in 2020, one of these three will tie Sampras next year. The only question for tennis fans is which one it would be. If the past two years have taught us anything, it really could be any one of them.
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