Since last year’s Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal has been tied with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slam titles apiece, the all-time men’s record. At the following US Open, Daniil Medvedev denied Djokovic a record 21st Major title. Now, the Russian was tasked with doing the same to Rafael Nadal. He looked up to it early, but Rafael Nadal responded with a comeback for the ages to take the all-time record.
Daniil Medvedev vs Rafael Nadal
Medvedev came out blazing, just outworking Nadal from behind the baseline. It’s rare to see anyone go even with Nadal during baseline rallies. Other than Djokovic, no one else ever seems able to do it consistently–or at all, even. Well, Medvedev showed no trouble whatsoever. In perhaps shocking manner, he stood well behind the baseline and just out-worked Nadal from the back of the court. The Spaniard had no options for outhitting Medvedev. The Russian calmly and consistently waited out the inevitable short ball or unforced error. Every single Nadal service game was under pressure. In what felt like the blink of an eye, Medvedev had claimed the first set 6-2.
Second Set: Rafa’s Resistance
Nadal put up a fight in the second set, though it wasn’t the cleanest tennis from either player. The 20-time Grand Slam champion earned an early break, and showed real emotion after a strong hold. The 4-1 lead was not enough, though, as the Russian found a break in Nadal’s next service game. Medvedev’s serve deserted him a bit as the set went on, and he again found himself broken, allowing Nadal to serve for the set. The Spaniard actually earned himself a set point while serving at 5-3, but he was once again broken. While serving to hold for 6-5, Nadal showed more positive emotion than any other point in the match.
The tiebreak, though, went similar to the set. Nadal earned an early minibreak lead, Medvedev clawed back; Nadal earned a second minibreak, and Medvedev clawed it back with a great return. In the end, the story of the tiebreak–just like the set as a whole–was Nadal’s inability to hit through the Medvedev wall when it mattered most. Too many big points ended with a Nadal groundstroke landing in the net after nothing got past the Russian. And, to cap it off, Medvedev ended the set with a brilliant backhand down the line pass.
Nadal faced a two-set deficit, and would need a performance for the ages to come back and achieve history. In fact, the last time Nadal won a match after losing the first two sets was at Wimbledon way back in 2007. Ironically enough, that match was also against a Russian–current Denis Shapovalov coach Mikhail Youzhny. The Spaniard had the crowd firmly on his side, but that wouldn’t be enough. Medvedev seems to excel with the crowd against him.
The opening game set an ominous tone for the set. Medvedev, by his standards of the match, played poorly. The serve missed at times, and the groundstrokes weren’t crisp. The Russian saved a break point, but also gave Nadal a deuce opportunity with an embarrassingly poor drop shot. His response to that shot? Thundering two serves to end the game. Nadal never had a chance.
Neither serve faced much trouble for the next few games, but the general attitude of the match was not in Nadal’s favor. Medvedev was hitting the ball deeper, more cleanly, and with more confidence. And at 2*-3, Medvedev pounced. Two deep returns and an incredible defensive lob put the Russian in good position, and he capitalized on all three. Nadal saved all three break chances, which changed the tenor of the match. The following game had some intensity, some emotion, and some yelling at the crowd, but Medvedev held it in six points with some huge serves and groundstrokes. He could not do the same in his next service game, and after a love hold by Nadal we were headed to a fourth set.
Nadal broke early in the fourth set, keeping Medvedev clearly uncomfortable with his variation and drop shots. However, Medvedev found a way to break back and level the match at 2-2. In the ensuing game, in an incredible bit of symmetry from the third set, Nadal opened up three break chances, but Medvedev saved all three. However, Nadal kept plugging away in the game, and finally earned the break on his seventh opportunity. As the two then traded holds, Medvedev was clearly beginning to tire. It looked like Nadal might be able to run away with this. Nadal played a poor service game at 4*-3 but managed to hold anyway. He held easily his next time up, and we were going five.
Medvedev looked tired and uncertain to open the set, but he saved a break point and gutted out a hold with some huge serves. The Russian struggled mightily in rallies as the set went on, but the big serve kept him in it. Nadal made enough returns to open a break point chance at 2-2, and the all-time great took it with a brilliant forehand that painted the line. The Spaniard was just three holds away from history, and Medvedev was showing no signs of being able to fight back.
The Russian did find some resistance in the very next game. His second wind had him competing in, and even winning some, rallies, but brilliant serving from Nadal earned him the hold. Medvedev fought through Nadal’s next service game again, but more brilliant play from the Spaniard earned the hold. Medvedev still had some fight in him, though, forcing Nadal to serve it out. The Spaniard showed some nerves, got a time violation warning, and was broken to level the match at 5-5.
It would now be if someone could win two games first, or we’d be heading to a first-to-ten tiebreak to crown a champion. Nadal didn’t let the prior game get to him, and immediately broke Medvedev for a second chance to serve out the match. This time the Spaniard succeeded without trouble, clinching a 26 67(5) 64 64 75 victory in over five hours on court.
After a career spent chasing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal has finally surpassed him. The Spaniard certainly won’t match many of his greatest rival’s records, but the Grand Slam record–arguably the most important one–is his and his alone, at least for now.
Nadal’s career is far from over. He now holds the all-time men’s record for Grand Slams won, and should come into the French Open in four months as a heavy favorite. What’s next on the list for him? He likely won’t play enough Masters events to seriously challenge for the World #1 ranking again. But perhaps Serena’s mark of 23 Majors is in reach? If he can compete at both the hard court and clay Slams for a few more years, anything is possible.
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