September 9, 2019
The only fight Rafael Nadal lost was against the tears.
After nearly five hours and one of the best finals in US Open history, he lay spread-eagled on the floor.
He had fought off an extraordinary comeback from Daniil Medvedev, a man seemingly in a trance and on a mission to upset.
And here’s the thing. Even at 5-2 up in the fifth, you could sense that Nadal had almost nothing left in the tank. Medvedev sensed it. The tennis world sensed it.
If the 23-year-old could hang in there, something sensational was going to happen. And Medvedev did hang in there. As if asking the most soul-searching, painful question Nadal had ever been asked.
We always talk of Nadal as a warrior. This was quite possibly the battle of his life.
Given his age, he had to dig deeper than ever before to win this 19th Grand Slam 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
A fourth US Open triumph. None harder-earned than this.
Nadal had to come from 0-40 down at the start of the fifth, with the help of a 28-shot rally. That was nothing compared to the fear of losing it all towards the end.
His face was a picture of joy and sheer relief when all was said and done. Looking up at the big screen and seeing what he had achieved. Feeling the incalculable satisfaction of what he had just added.
No wonder Nadal burst into tears.
Minutes later he put his feelings into words. ‘One of the most emotional nights of my career for sure. So tough mentally and physically for me. So many nerves. The nerves were so high. To be 5-2 up, then 5-4, then break point…’
Somehow, through superhuman effort, Nadal turned the tide once more. He attacked the net. He gambled what little he had left.
With a drop-shot of pure genius and a final defiant serve, Rafa came within touching distance of the great Roger Federer.
And by then we had forgotten that it had been looking even more straightforward for the favourite a few hours earlier. Then suddenly everything started to slip from the Spaniard’s grasp.
The statistics told the story of Medvedev’s onslaught. They told of 14 aces to 5 and 75 winners to 64. They told of a young man possessed with an immense sporting fire. Pressure-free.
Everyone had tipped Nadal. We all thought he would win, particulalry if Medvedev missed the boat in the first set and failed to force a tie-break.
Nadal. Of course. But not like this.
Two sets and a break ahead. Then Medvedev said he heard the crowd, willing him to prolong the match. Boy, did he deliver and win them over, after some controversial remarks earlier in the tournament.
‘I hope I showed I can change, I am only human, people can make mistakes,’ said Daniil to rapturous applause later. And his time will surely come.
So what does it all mean? It means tennis is beautiful. It means Roger Federer is looking over his shoulder anxiously, even with his imperious total of twenty Grand Slams.
Of course, Federer could conjure a winning reply of his own Down Under in a few months’ time.
If not, and Nadal wins either the Australian or French Open, he will draw level with Federer in time for Wimbledon 2020. What a fitting year-number for the next great battle between the all-time-greats at the All England club.
As we predicted, it really could be Federer 20, Nadal 20 for the next championships at Wimbledon.