The 2019 U.S. Open was won by Rafael Nadal, but it was defined by Daniil Medvedev. The 2019 U.S. Open men’s final was won by Rafael Nadal, but it was a match made memorable not just by the champion’s resilience, but by the challenger’s ability to push Rafa to his limits.
The 2019 U.S. Open men’s final also owned the quality of a match whose identity changed profoundly in the middle of the battle, even though the final outcome did not.
In many ways, that shows how utterly Medvedevian this final truly was.
The precise characteristic Daniil Medvedev displayed to the world this past month — especially in his Cincinnati win over Novak Djokovic, but also in his quarterfinal win at the Open against Stan Wawrinka — was an ability to change midstream.
Medvedev’s capacity for change doesn’t relate solely to shots used or tactics employed. The fascinating and alluring aspect of Medvedev — the past month and in the exciting, new future he has created for tennis in the 2020s — is that he is willing to change an entire identity on a dime.
One moment, he is Gilles Simon with a serve, intent on getting every ball back and engaging opponents in a war of attrition. In Canada and in the first half of Cincinnati, he was willing to be that kind of player.
The Djokovic semifinal in Cincinnati was — and is, and will remain — a highly revealing moment for the tennis world, in that it showed Medvedev could become an entirely different player. Medvedev abruptly junked his Gillou identity and put on the clothing of Nick Kyrgios, red-lining second serves and trying to play very short points.
In the Wawrinka quarterfinal in New York, Medvedev — his body taxed from long matches and an accumulation of court time over a month, not just the first week and a half at the U.S. Open — became a drop-shot-selecting maniac late in the first set. An insistence on net rushes and drop shot-lob combinations became a regular — not merely occasional — part of his tennis diet.
Medvedev is a chameleon. He can wear many different hats. As opposed to owning a recognizable style the way Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic depend on, Medvedev can morph into different people.
This is why he is the Magical Mystery Tour, the player whose journeys through tournaments create more intrigue and fascination than anyone else in men’s tennis.
Medvedev creates something out of nothing. He forges entirely new realities in situations which seem entirely unconducive to the creation of those realities.
This was generally true after Cincinnati.
It was true during the win over Wawrinka.
This reality was powerfully reinforced in — and by — Sunday’s final against Nadal.
Had Rafa won this match in three sets — specifically, by holding serve at *3-2 and comfortably winning the third set, 6-4 — we would not be talking about Daniil Medvedev the same way we are talking about him now.
Rafa winning in five instead of three might merely be seen by some as a delaying of the inevitable, but with Nadal staring at break points for a 2-0 deficit in the fifth set, no one can reasonably say this match outcome was inevitable.
Medvedev’s uncommon resilience — recalling a man named Novak Djokovic in the 2010 U.S. Open final — deserves respect. Calling this outcome inevitable does not confer that respect.
Had Nadal won in three, the verdict on this match would have been, “Nadal cruises to title over worn-out challenger who had played full weeks of tennis in Washington, Canada, Cincinnati, and New York.”
Because Medvedev pushed past his obvious physical strain — and the rubdowns he received as this match went along — none of us who follow professional tennis for a living get to say that this match was decided by Club Med’s massive summer workload. Medvedev did not allow that to be the final story of this match.
Medvedev changed the conversation. He changed the way this match will be remembered in an immediate context.
He also made sure that this match’s identity will continue to change and evolve in the 2020s.
What do I mean by that?
Very simply, how Medvedev performs in the next 10 years will constantly add layers of meaning to this 2019 final. Those layers could be positive or negative, but they will be added to this match, one way or another.
A pedestrian Rafa romp in three sets would have made it a lot harder to identify this match as a significant hinge point in the story of men’s tennis, especially as it relates to younger generations of players trying to bust through the Big 3 fortress and make a name for themselves in the history books.
The fact that Medvedev took this match five sets — and made Rafa sweat in that fifth set — creates a very different reality, and an accordingly different set of expectations for Medvedev himself.
He wasn’t the Kevin Anderson roadkill Rafa feasted on in the 2017 U.S. Open men’s final. He was the player who stood up to Nadal with a level of fearlessness matched by Dominic Thiem in the 2018 U.S. Open…
and the key difference is this: Whereas Thiem was fresh and Rafa was exhausted entering that 2018 U.S. Open quarterfinal, the 2019 final involved Medvedev being overwhelmed by the huge workload of the past month, and Rafa being the efficient player who won a series of straight-set matches.
Medvedev, not Rafa, was the more physically burdened player in this match… and Medvedev nearly climbed Mount Everest after falling behind by two sets.
Medvedev didn’t win the match or the championship, but his comeback bid does — and should — change the way the match, the tournament, and Club Med’s own career are remembered.
A big change in identity forged midway through a match? That is exactly in the nature of Daniil Medvedev, The Magical Mystery Tour, to achieve.
No one envisioned these sentences being written before August of 2019, but over the past six weeks, especially in Cincinnati and New York, Medvedev has dramatically changed his profile, prospects and possibilities as a tennis player.
He didn’t win the 2019 U.S. Open, but he certainly defined it.