As first Novak Djokovic and then Roger Federer exited the US Open, leaving the draw wide open for Rafael Nadal, there was legitimate cause for concern the men’s singles final would be what it was for the previous two years: a forgettable, one-sided encounter far from befitting of the occasion.
Nadal and Djokovic ran roughshod over Kevin Anderson and Juan Martin del Potro in 2017 and 2018 respectively, with neither able to provide enough of a test to produce a spectacle worthy of being retained in the memory for too long.
To watch Nadal, Djokovic and Federer overwhelm an opponent is a sight to behold. The sporting soliloquies they frequently deliver against those outside their ceaselessly dominant trident are regularly compelling simply for the mastery they display when brushing aside inferior foes.
However, grand slam finals are not the stage for such one-man shows. In this arena more than any other, two protagonists are needed for the headline act to live up to the billing.
On Sunday, Nadal was lucky enough to share the Arthur Ashe court with the tournament’s chief protagonist, and he and Daniil Medvedev combined to produce a four-hour-and-49-minute drama that nobody who was lucky enough to have a seat in the stadium will forget in a hurry.
It seemed extremely unlikely that Medvedev – the man who became the leading storyline of an often drab men’s tournament after aiming a middle-finger gesture towards the crowd in a third-round clash with Feliciano Lopez – would be able to provide the thrilling final-day flourish those packed inside the world’s largest tennis stadium witnessed when Nadal took control of his 27th major final.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 9, 2019
Medvedev himself conceded he was thinking about giving a speech after Nadal broke in the third set to take a 3-2 lead. However, he has consistently proven capable of finding inspiration from unexpected sources and at unexpected times.
He masterfully used the jeers of spectators to his advantage against Lopez and in the fourth round with Dominik Koepfer, goading the fans after matches while focusing on transforming their negative energy into a positive.
In his quarter-final with Stan Wawrinka he superbly switched his tactics to exhaust the Swiss by getting him on the run with drop shots and lobs, finding a way to survive and advance having been in a dire situation as a thigh injury left him believing retirement or defeat was inevitable.
Medvedev felt the latter was a formality as Nadal moved through the gears in the final, but once again he discovered life when it looked least likely to arrive.
“I was like, ‘Okay, okay, just fight for every point, don’t think about these things.’ It worked out not bad,” said the Russian.
It worked out significantly better than not bad. Medvedev’s desire, excellent movement on the baseline and ability to put so many balls back in play led to uncharacteristic errors from Nadal that saw him surrender the initiative, setting in motion a recovery nobody foresaw but one suddenly everybody except those in the Nadal camp desperately wanted.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 9, 2019
A dramatic twist worthy of Broadway turned everything on its head, including the crowd, who shockingly swayed to the man they once loathed as they chanted Medvedev’s name, making clear their desire to see the match extended into a fourth set.
Medvedev obliged and, with renewed belief, ploughed on in search of one of the greatest comebacks in grand slam history, which looked a very real possibility when he met a 107mph Nadal serve out wide with a perfectly placed two-handed backhand winner to force a decider.
His extraordinary revival made for an astonishing spectacle as it led to a gripping, undulating conclusion in which crowd support swung one way and then the other as both players somehow summoned the energy to deliver the finale this captivating contest deserved.
Medvedev had three break points in the second game of the fifth but could take none of them, Nadal finding depth and accuracy off both wings, and it was the Spaniard who just about proved to have more in the tank, surging into – and then almost losing – a 5-2 lead.
Nadal withstood a final show of Medvedev character and a break point that would have levelled the match once more and immediately fell flat on his back when an overhit forehand return secured a 7-5 6-3 5-7 4-6 6-4 success and his fourth US Open title, with the now 19-time major champion quick to acknowledge the 23-year-old’s part in making this one of his most emotional triumphs.
“Daniil created this moment, too. The way that he fought, the way that he played, it’s a champion way. I really believe that he will have many more chances,” said Nadal at his media conference.
“These kind of matches in the final of grand slams makes the match more special. The way that the match became very dramatic at the end, that makes this day unforgettable.”
Medvedev will take little solace in his incredible role in a losing cause. The story of the 2019 US Open men’s singles will always end with Nadal tearfully clutching the trophy, but it is a tale that will not be able to be told without recalling how Medvedev made it one worth listening to, and how he ultimately saved the final slam of the year from being another anti-climax.