In the end it came down to experience – the experience of winning 18 previous grand slam titles and the experience of losing another eight major finals. When the chips were down, Rafael Nadal knew how to win the US Open and Daniil Medvedev didn’t.
He will know next time, though – Medvedev is a lightning quick learner. And he almost won on Sunday night, coming back from the brink of a straight-sets defeat to drag the world No 2 into a dogfight of a match until Nadal finally put his tormentor away 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 in four hours and 50 minutes.
When it was over, Nadal could not stop the tears. It was his 19th grand slam title and his fourth in New York. It gave him membership of a very exclusive club: only he, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have won four US Open titles or more. He was also now standing only one major trophy behind Federer at the top of the list of most successful grand slam champions.
As he waited for the trophy presentation ceremony to begin, the crowd was shown a short film listing each of Nadal’s 19 grand slam final victories. As he looked up at the big screen and the crowd chanted his name, he could not keep his emotions in check.
“It made me think we are getting old,” he said. “In some way that’s good. See all the things I went through, to be able to still be here is so special for me. I went through some tough moments, physically especially. When you have physical issues, then mentally things became much more difficult.
“The emotions have been there watching all the success, all the moments that came to my mind in that moment. Yeah, I tried to hold the emotion, but some moments was impossible.”
Had it not been for the chronic knee problems he has suffered over the years, the wrist and foot issues, all injuries that have forced him to miss many grand slam events, Nadal might have been streets ahead of Federer in terms of major titles won by now. As it is, he takes his chances when they come and he remains one of the most ferocious competitors the sport has ever seen.
“I always say the same,” he said, “I would love to be the one who win more slams, but I am not thinking and I not going to practise every day or playing tennis for it. I am playing tennis because I love to play tennis. I play to be happy. Of course, the victory of today makes me super happy. I would love to be the one who have more, yes. But I really believe I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the happiness is the personal satisfaction that you gave your best. In that way I am very, very calm, very pleased with myself.”
To win on Sunday, Nadal had to fight as if his life depended upon it. He knew Medvedev would be tough – the Russian world No 4 had won 20 of 22 matches coming into the US Open and scrapped his way through every round. He is the human backboard; no ball gets past him.
So when, from two sets and a break up, Nadal found Medvedev thundering towards him on the attack, thumping his serve, mixing up his tactics – sometimes a drop shot, sometimes some serve and volley – and clattering his forehand, he knew he was in trouble. And when the Russian had break points at the start of the fifth set, Nadal saw the danger signals. That is when experience kicked in, despite the nerves.
The saving grace was that he had always been ahead of Medvedev; he was never chasing the score.
“Even if you are in a negative dynamic, you know for your experience and you really believe that you can have your chance in the fifth, even if you are losing. It’s different when you are against the score than when you have to win the match. The mental issue is different. I know that for a lot of years, from my personal experience.
“My thoughts have been I need to resist. At the beginning of the fifth, I cannot lose my serve at the beginning of the fifth. If I am able to hold my serve, I really thought – I hoped – that I going to have my chances.”
That experience told as with the deftest and most delicate of dropshots, he created his third match point and with a service winner, he converted it. That’s when the tears began to flow.