NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal’s 19th Grand Slam trophy went from inevitable to suddenly in doubt in a thrill-a-minute U.S. Open final.
What had all the makings of a crowning morphed into a real contest thanks to Nadal’s opponent, Daniil Medvedev, a man a decade younger and appearing in his first major title match. Down by two sets and a break, Medvedev shifted styles, upped his level against a rattled Nadal — and even received an unexpected boost from Arthur Ashe Stadium spectators.
Truly tested for the only time in the tournament, the No. 2-seeded Nadal managed to stop Medvedev’s surge Sunday and hold off his historic comeback bid, pulling out a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory in 4 hours, 50 minutes of highlight-worthy action and Broadway-worthy drama to collect his fourth championship at Flushing Meadows.
“An amazing final. Seems that I had, more or less, the match under control,” said Nadal, who covered his face with his hands while crying when arena video boards showed clips from each of his Slam triumphs. “One of the most emotional nights of my tennis career.”
Now at 19 majors — a total Medvedev called “outrageous” — Nadal is merely one away from rival Roger Federer’s record for a man.
But this one did not come easily. Not at all.
Sure seemed it might, with Nadal ahead by two sets and a break in the third at 3-2.
At that moment, the No. 5-seeded Medvedev would joke afterward, he figured the match was about 20 minutes from ending and so this is where his thoughts were: “OK, what do I say in the speech?”
But the 23-year-old from Russia did not go gently into the night. He broke right back to 3-all, then again to claim that set and yet again to end the fourth.
“The nerves were so high,” Nadal said. “A crazy match.”
Not since 1949 had a man won the U.S. Open final after trailing by two sets to none. Never before had Medvedev won a five-set match. Only once before had Nadal lost a Grand Slam match after taking the opening two sets.
And yet the tension was real.
Even at the very end — or what appeared to be the very end — Nadal couldn’t close it out. After breaking to lead 3-2 in the fifth, in a game Medvedev led 40-love before flubbing an easy forehand, Nadal broke again and served for the championship at 5-2.