Metaphorically, Rafael Nadal’s tennis was trying to tell that young whippersnapper Daniil Medvedev: Get off my lawn. In this case, blue hardcourt.
The previous 11 Grand Slam tournament titles had been won by men 30 years old or older, and Nadal, 33, was hoping to keep that kind of order in Sunday’s U.S. Open championship match against the 23-year-old Medvedev.
Medvedev did not appear to be listening.
Medvedev, who brought a tour-leading 50 match victories to the occasion, did more than just hang around on the old champions’ turf. He pushed Nadal to the limit in a rip-roaring five-setter before Nadal escaped with a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory.
A drop shot got Nadal to a second match point and he finished with a serve that Medvedev pushed long. Nadal then collapsed on the court with his 19th major championship, one behind all-time leader Roger Federer.
It was the first five-set men’s final since 2013, when Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic.
“An amazing final. Seems that I had, more or less, the match under control,” Nadal said. “One of the most emotional nights of my tennis career.”
Down two sets to love, Medvedev kept pounding groundstrokes, kept running down whatever Nadal sent back. When Nadal appeared to finally get the crucial service break — with a lob, followed by a drop shot — for a 5-2 lead in the fifth set, Medvedev immediately broke back. At 5-3 Nadal in the set, Medvedev saved two match points on his serve.
“I’ll definitely remember it,” Medvedev said of the experience, “even when I’m, like, 70 years old.”
The switchbacks in control were so constant, and so entertaining to the spectators, that chants of “Let’s go, Med!” to help Medvedev through the third set turned to a “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!” pleading in the fifth.
Not that Nadal had the slightest misperception of where his sport could be going. “The clock is not stopping,” he said. “That’s part of the cycle of life.”
Nadal repeatedly had been asked during the two-week tournament about the Big Three — himself, Djokovic and Federer — and the potential of their continued rule over tennis after taking 54 of the previous 64 Slam trophies. Nadal was responsible for 18 of those championships. Now it’s 19.
“We don’t need to hold this era anymore,” Nadal said before the match. “We have been here for 15 years. At some point, sooner or later, this is going to end. Is arriving to the end. I am 33. Novak is 32. Roger is 38.”
The top-ranked Djokovic had gone down in the Open’s third round and Federer had lost in the quarterfinals. For the first time in 10 years, two players as young as 23 made the Open men’s semifinals — the Russian Medvedev and Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, who finally was sent home by Nadal.
But Medvedev provided Nadal a different challenge, much of it relating to the passage of time. As the clock ticked, Medvedev consistently insisted on extending rallies, a Nadal specialty but one matched over and over again by Medvedev on Sunday. They wound up playing for just under five hours.
In the anticipatory limbo before each man’s service, the two were easy to distinguish, the muscled Nadal with his constant twitches and the rail-thin Medvedev, swimming in baggy clothes, waiting quietly with his arms dangling.
Once the point commenced, though, both put on a rollicking show of athleticism, of movement and anticipation that regularly extended rallies toward 30 strokes.
Then, just for extra flavor, the two would change the tempo drastically, with drop shots and charging volleys. And those were answered by each man setting sail toward the ball, sometimes with five giant strides, and still keeping the point going.
Between them, they went through 11 service breaks.
The production had the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium rocking, an atmosphere that Nadal has cited for its “big energy” and Medvedev for its “electricity.”
Said Nadal, “The way that he was able to fight, to change the rhythm of the match, was just incredible.”
Most Grand Slam singles titles:
Australian French Wimbledon U.S.
20 Roger Federer 6 1 8 5
19 Rafael Nadal 1 12 2 4
16 Novak Djokovic 7 1 5 3
As the 2010s decade ends, 33 of the 40 major titles were won by a member of the Big 3:
Andy Murray 3
Stan Wawrinka 3
Marin Cilic 1