NEW YORK — The match that seemed destined to last forever showed what we already knew, that Rafael Nadal is one of the all-time tennis greats and what we now know, that Daniil Medvedev has the skills and resilience to be the same.
Nadal, on this warm Sunday night that ended a U.S. Open loaded with surprises, overcame Medvedev and his own weariness to take his fourth Open championship, with a 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory.
For Nadal, urged on by a sellout crowd of more than 23,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium that filled the place with chants of “Rafa, Rafa,” it was the 19th major title, one fewer than the record 20 of Roger Federer.
“It was an amazing final,” affirmed Nadal, “one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career.”
It was a final that appeared certain to end quickly, as Medvedev, in his first championship match of a Grand Slam tournament, dropped the first two sets. But it turned out to be a final that lasted just 10 minutes short of five hours.
It was a final that helped turn the 23-year-old Medvedev, who in the early rounds had elicited boos because of his gestures toward the fans, into a hero.
A final that went on so long it forced ESPN, which televises the tournament, to shift the Yankees-Red Sox game to ESPN2 while Nadal and the young Russian pulled off shots that would have been described as impossible if they didn’t actually happen.
“I have to say to Daniil,” Nadal told the crowd and Medvedev at the trophy presentation, “the way he was playing, fighting, was just incredible.”
Nadal, who at 33 is the second-oldest winner of the Open, didn’t figure to have much trouble with Medvedev, even through Medvedev had 50 match wins this year, more than anyone. Rafa had beaten Medvedev last month in at tournament at Toronto.
“I was ready to make my speech after losing in three sets,” said Medvedev. “But you people (the fans) wouldn’t let me. Because of you guys, tonight is always going to be in my mind.”
Nadal joined Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras as a four-time Open winner. “He is something unbelievable, outrageous,” Medvedev insisted. When Novak Djokovic, the 2018 winner, withdrew last Sunday because of an injury and then two days later Federer was upset by Grigor Dimitrov, the Open seemed to be in Nadal’s grasp.
And two sets into Sunday night’s match, there was no reason to change the thought. However, Medvedev responded beautifully, breaking serve, winning the third and fourth sets and almost winning the fifth and the match. Almost.
It was then that Nadal, the champion, the veteran, chased down a few balls and persisted.
When Medvedev’s last shot flew long, Nadal clopped onto the court, perhaps as much in tiredness — he had done everything to slow down play — as in elation.
“The pressure the last two hours was very intense,” said Nadal. “The crowd was amazing. The way he played, he is a champion.
“This trophy means everything to me. Personal satisfaction, the way that I resisted all these tough moments is very high. Just I normally try to hold the emotions, but at the end these facts have been impossible (to ignore)."
Rafa said he was in trouble, and yet he never trailed until briefly when he was broken in the fifth set. Then he recovered.
This was the second consecutive lengthy, thrilling Grand Slam final. In July, Djokovic outlasted Federer in five sets at Wimbledon. Although he couldn’t finish this Open, Djokovic won two of the Slams, Australian and Wimbledon, and Nadal won the other two, this Open and the French Open.
“This was special for me,” said Nadal. “As you get older, it gets harder. If I don’t get any more (Grand Slam) wins it will not bother me. You can’t be all day hoping for wins. I would love to have one more, but I believe I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or doesn’t happen.”
It will happen, just as Sunday night happened. “Rafa, Rafa.”