By Christopher Clarey
For a tennis champion devoted to his routines, Rafael Nadal has certainly managed to navigate plenty of change.
Signs of the times were everywhere as he prevailed in a draining and dazzling U.S. Open final over Daniil Medvedev on Sunday night.
When Nadal won his first U.S. Open in 2010, there was no retractable roof high over his head, no digital serve clock counting down in a corner of Arthur Ashe Stadium to cause him grief.
Even the rival looming across the net Sunday was a break with tradition. This was not one of Nadal’s usual measuring sticks: not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka.
It was Medvedev, an unorthodox and unpredictable shotmaker from Russia with a taste for risk but also an astonishing ability to extend points. Nadal, one of tennis’s great defenders, can certainly relate.
Few elite tennis players have looked as slow at first glance as the gangly, 6-foot-6 Medvedev and yet been so blazingly quick to the corners or to a well-placed drop shot.
He is just 23 — 10 years younger than Nadal, which made for the biggest age gap ever for Nadal in his 27th major singles final.
But while the youth movement is well underway in the women’s game, regime change will have to wait a little longer still in men’s tennis.
Nadal made sure of that, just barely, by snuffing out Medvedev’s comeback to win the final Grand Slam match of the 2010s: 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
It was a great tussle and a fitting way to mark the end of a great decade in men’s tennis at the majors.
The match had the requisite length — at four hours, 50 minutes — to do justice to all the epic finals of the last 10 years.
It also preserved the Big Three’s logic-defying dominance. At the end of the 2009 season, the top three players in the rankings were Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. On Monday, the same three men are still on top, with Djokovic at No. 1, Nadal in hot pursuit and Federer a more distant No. 3.
Bianca Andreescu, a 19-year-old Canadian, won the U.S. Open on Saturday to become the first woman born in the 2000s to win a Grand Slam singles title.
The men are still waiting for a player born in the 1990s to win one, although Medvedev certainly gave it a fine effort.
“It’s a different tour, different tennis,” said Carlos Moya, a former No. 1 player who now coaches Nadal. “It’s very exciting to see new faces coming up in the WTA, and maybe we need that here as well. For the people, it’s good to see new faces. For us in our team, it’s better that Rafa stays up there, but of course the tour needs exciting new players like Medvedev or the other guys. Sooner or later, they will win Slams.”
It cannot be sooner than 2020 now. The 2010s are closed, and Nadal, Djokovic and Federer finished them off by sweeping the singles titles at the last 12 Grand Slam tournaments.
The race to see who will end his career with the record for most majors is certainly a motivator. Federer is at 20, Nadal now at 19 and Djokovic at 16.
Djokovic has been the most open lately about his desire to win the race. Federer and Nadal have fluctuated in their desire to get caught up in it publicly through the years.
Nadal, though he has never been closer to the 38-year-old Federer’s lead than he is today, has been particularly reticent of late, perhaps because he has never been closer to Federer on a personal level than he is today.
They are back on the ATP Player Council after jointly deciding they wanted to reengage in an attempt to calm the choppy political waters on the men’s tour. If healthy, they will be teammates and likely doubles partners for Team Europe in the Laver Cup this month in Geneva. They are also scheduled to play an exhibition match in Cape Town, South Africa, in February in a soccer stadium.
But there is also a sense of who is kidding whom? How can Nadal, whose love of the fight is hard-wired, not care deeply about the Grand Slam chase?
“I make my history,” he said Sunday. “I understand. I think it’s good for tennis. It creates interest that we three players are doing something that has never been done until now. It is a big satisfaction to be part of this fight, but inside of me, I don’t want to see it like that or I think it would be a mistake to see it like that.”
He continued: “If you did, I think you would live in a state of tension and pressure all day long. I don’t think it would make me happy, and I think it would keep me from appreciating all the things I’ve done and all the good things that have happened to me. I want to emphasize that, not what I don’t have.”
It seems a surprisingly sensitive subject, but Nadal certainly had no problem baring his teeth Sunday night and pursuing what he did not yet have: a fourth U.S. Open singles title. Or getting unusually teary-eyed after he acquired it as he sat courtside and watched a video celebrating his 19 Grand Slam titles.
“I have to say, these three guys are legends,” Medvedev said of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. “The way they’re playing tennis is just unbelievable. When you are out there, tactically it’s tougher than against anybody else.”
The tactics Sunday were a departure from the norm for both men. They were trying to solve similar riddles. Both Nadal and Medvedev stand unusually deep behind the baseline to return first serves and also thrive in backcourt exchanges.
Both responded by trying to surprise the other and improve their angles of attack by rushing the net. Nadal came forward 66 times: three times as often as he had in any other match at this U.S. Open. He won 51 of those net points.
Medvedev came forward 74 times: twice as often as he had in any other match in the tournament. He won 50 of those net points.
Nadal also served and volleyed 20 times, winning 17 of those exchanges, while Medvedev picked up his own serve-and-volley pace in the final three sets as he shifted strategies and clawed his way back into contention.
It was all-court tennis and all-in tennis: full of spectacular rallies often matching Medvedev’s relatively flat hitting against Nadal’s heavy spin. But there were also many exchanges that broke free of conventional patterns, and both men often seemed to be grunting not out of habit but out of a genuine need to add something extra to each shot that might make the other miss.
It was exhausting and thrilling to play, and in the final three sets, exhausting and thrilling to watch.
“Some of the balls he was getting to were incredible,” Nadal said. “I think he had to come out of his comfort zone, to do things he doesn’t usually do.”
The same could be said for Nadal, but on balance, he was more in his element after all the marathon five-setters he has played in over the last 15 years. Medvedev’s generation will play best-of-five sets only in the Grand Slam tournaments. Nadal came of age also playing best-of-five in Davis Cup and even in the Olympic final and some Masters 1000 finals on the regular tour.
Medvedev, for all the powers of recuperation that were on display in New York, is now 0-5 in five-setters. Nadal is 22-12.
Nadal made it clear that experience has its pros and its cons.
“I’m 33, not 23,” he said. “That’s not an advantage. But at some point mentally, yes. Because even if you are in a negative dynamic, you know from your experience and you really believe that you can have your chance in the fifth.”
So it turned out. Some distant day, even Nadal will run out of steam. He even struggled with his motivation earlier this year after his latest series of injuries and considered calling off his clay court season altogether. But he pushed through the ennui with Moya’s help and recovered his mojo. The payoff was big: a 12th French Open title, a run to the semifinals at Wimbledon and another U.S. Open title.
As a new decade looms, the old guard still rules.