Rafael Nadal is at his pinnacle and soon may be the greatest
Eighteen times before he had won Grand Slam tournaments, but this might have been Rafael Nadal’s finest moment. For in the crucible that became a cauldron when the Spaniard’s Sunday stroll through Flushing Meadows Corona Park became a street fight against a courageous and engaging Daniil Medvedev, Nadal survived.
He survived by willing himself through the fifth set, by persevering after having blown a two sets-to-none lead up a break in the third and then frittering away two championship points in the ninth game of the fourth set. Nadal did it by running down just about everything in a match replete with extended rallies and by ultimately playing indomitable, indefatigable tennis in taking the Open title, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, in 4 hours and 50 minutes of high drama.
In claiming the championship, Nadal cemented the hegemony that has ruled the men’s tour for nearly 15 years. If it seems nearly impossible, that is just what it is. In the sport where youth is served (no, that is not the title of a cookbook), 30-somethings Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have combined to win 12 consecutive majors through the past three calendars.
What’s more, The Big Three plus honorary members Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray have won 57 of the past 59 majors beginning with the 2005 French Open, with only Marin Cilic and Juan del Potro breaking through. Now, Medvedev, anti-hero turned hero in midstream, seems poised to become perhaps the most serious threat to the standing order of greatness.
But before he — or anyone — crashes the party, you should know how much Medvedev himself marvels at it. You should know how much Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have become saturated into their sport’s soul.
“It’s tough to say whether [their dynasty] is coming to an end,” Medvedev said. “I don’t want to talk by myself about this. It’s better for the journalists, the experts, to do that.
“I can say that I’m sure all of us, we’re fighting our best to make this transition. It’s really tough because these guys are playing good tennis. I don’t know what else to say. They are just playing amazing tennis.”
Nadal has 19 majors now, one behind Federer and three ahead of Djokovic in a race around the world to finish with the record. Once, and not all that long ago, you could perhaps say Nadal’s number came from just his inherent advantage on clay, the surface on which he has won 12 times at Roland Garros to pad his number. But no longer does that markdown apply.
For this marked Nadal’s fourth victory here, and his second in three years. In the Open era, only Federer, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras (each with five) and John McEnroe (four) have won as many. Nadal is a horse, maybe one of a different color given his transcendent brilliance, but the Spaniard most definitely is no one-trick pony.
“I feel honored to be part of this battle,” Nadal said. “I would love to be the one who has [the most], yes. But I really believe I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not. What gives you happiness is the personal satisfaction that you gave your best. In that way, I am very, very pleased with myself.”
Maybe once, when the game was known as lawn tennis, it represented a genteel exercise. There was nothing genteel about this match. This turned into a brawl, no quarter given by either side featuring hours of intense, physical tennis. Medvedev got breaks and would not break. Nadal, the same. After two straight years of straight-set finals, this was one that will be remembered for ages.
And it is one that capped a tournament that had been dominated for the most part by the women’s side of the draw. Coco Gauff, 15, was the center of attention through three rounds, and her third-round match against Naomi Osaka proved the signature event of the championship … until the men’s championship.
Serena Williams was the headline act through most of two weeks, until the final big and bold headline — wood, they call it in our business — shouted out Nadal’s name and Nadal’s championship match against Medvedev. This was a match the Open needed, and this was tournament without controversy that the USTA needed after the 2018 debacle.
The tournament is over, and the Grand Slam season with it. But the race goes on. When Australia rolls around in January of 2020, Nadal will take aim at catching Federer, the Swiss will do whatever possible to hold him off and Djokovic will be hunting them as big game.
Savor this. Nothing lasts forever. Of course in this case, maybe it will.
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