The story of the 2019 U.S. Open men’s final owns many dimensions. The story of Rafael Nadal in relationship to this match begins four years earlier at the very same tournament, inside the very same Arthur Ashe Stadium where Nadal won his 19th major championship on Sunday night.
Yes, in order to appreciate No. 19 for Rafa, you have to go back to the 2015 U.S. Open.
Something happened at that tournament which had never happened before, or in the four years since.
Something happened at that U.S. Open which Daniil Medvedev was on the verge of doing Sunday night.
Rafael Nadal, entering this 2019 championship match, had a 208-1 record when winning the first two sets of a five-set match. Only one time did he fail to seal the deal: It happened at the 2015 U.S. Open, when Fabio Fognini authored a supremely improbable comeback from a two-set deficit.
The 2015 and 2016 tennis seasons were Nadal’s dark night of the tennis soul. Bodily transformations and health problems flowing from the second half of 2014 interrupted the rhythm and damaged the confidence of a man who depends on the regularity of routine and relies on his body to meet the demands of modern-day attritional baseline tennis.
Nadal needs to know that his body can be ready for a 15-round heavyweight bout, that his energy and power will enable him to suffer at a sufficient height, that his strength will be able to wear down an opponent with a lesser will or a stroke which can be exploited.
Fabio Fognini is an opponent with a lesser will. He is precisely the kind of opponent who — when Nadal is fit and fully formidable — will eventually succumb to Rafa’s force and focus in a prolonged battle.
The fact that Fognini, of all people, authored a two-set comeback against Nadal in 2015 offered the strongest possible indication of Nadal’s walk through the darkness, his search for confidence in a world he couldn’t recognize.
Nadal’s career had been halted many times by injury, but — as indicated quite powerfully in the second half of 2013 — some of those injuries paradoxically enabled his body to be refreshed. Nadal won Canada, Cincinnati and the Open in the summer of 2013, eclipsing — interestingly enough — Daniil Medvedev’s run of summer hardcourt finals this season.
What happened to Nadal in late 2014 and early 2015 did not refresh him. Those events diminished him — not his legacy, of course, but his belief in his shots. The ball did not pop off the racquet the way it used to.
Nadal stumbled and groped and clawed at The Old Rafa, the marriage of effort (which never left him) and rhythm and confidence (which HAD deserted him) he had lived with for 10 solid years but had now left his daily existence. Many events indicated the loss of trust in his game, but none more powerfully or emblematically than the Fognini loss.
In this 2019 U.S. Open final, then, it was as though Nadal was being brought full circle.
Here he was, encountering the realistic possibility that he could surrender a two-set lead at the U.S. Open.
When Nadal blew an easy smash at 4-4 and break point on Medvedev’s serve late in the third set, he allowed Medvedev to take the match to a fourth set. He was not in danger of losing. It still seemed highly unlikely that he would let this lead slip.
Then, in the fourth set, two missed second-serve returns (on what were not especially strong second serves from Club Med), one on break point, allowed Medvedev to continue to breathe. Medvedev, to his immense credit, punished Nadal for those errors with a level of stamina and personal belief which have newly defined the Russian’s game. Nevertheless, it remained that Nadal was getting tired, his body beginning to bark at him at age 33.
The long hardcourt slugfests which impeded his progress at the 2018 U.S. Open, and which have continued his Australian Open curse, began to become part of his physical and emotional reality as the fourth set deepened and Medvedev refused to go away.
Improbably but genuinely, Nadal got taken to a fifth set. He was in danger of losing the way he lost to Fognini in 2015, with his game eroding and his opponent beginning to think a full-distance comeback was attainable.
Here is the paradox of Nadal’s victory on Sunday: His mistakes — on shots he should have made — lengthened this match and made it more memorable. Nadal’s weaknesses on Sunday magnified his strengths. His vulnerability allowed people to appreciate that much more his supreme competitive virtues and problem-solving capacities.
Nadal didn’t lose the third and fourth sets because he lost confidence. He has been his typically confident self this year, patiently building back his game during clay season in time for Roland Garros. He carried that level of play through Wimbledon — where it took A-game-level Roger Federer to beat him — and then to Canada, where he dismantled the field (and wore down Fognini in the quarterfinals).
Nadal answered the call in the first six rounds of the U.S. Open, most notably and memorably in the first-set tiebreaker against Matteo Berrettini. Winning that tiebreaker spared Rafa the possibility of a four-or five-set marathon. It also reinforced his confidence in tight scoreboard situations.
Not having had to play a 4.5-hour semifinal, and having raised his game when it mattered in every match before the final, served him well on Sunday. Nadal did not accumulate court time at this U.S. Open the way he had in 2018.
This fifth set marked a time when Nadal’s body was beginning to ask questions of him, but confidence was still there.
Rafa just needed to apply it.
Serving in trouble at 0-1 and break-point down in the fifth set, everyone saw the man who has refined his concentration on the most important points of a tennis match for a decade and a half.
Nadal could have let this occasion slip. He also could have lost heart due to Medvedev’s positively Novak Djokovic-like stamina in lung-busting marathon rallies, which won a lot of the exchanges lasting more than 10 shots. Yet, Nadal counted on the reality that for every time Medvedev won a long point, the Russian — not used to breathing at this altitude, and never having won a five-set match in his career — would miss a second-serve return or hit a tired backhand on the next shorter exchange.
Nadal stayed the course. He began to make fewer mistakes as the fifth set moved along. He used more deep neutral slices to take away Medvedev’s ability to powerfully redirect the ball and catch Rafa off balance.
He wobbled a few more times to give Medvedev a look at a break point at *5-4, 30-40, but Nadal played an airtight point to avoid a crisis. Two points later, he owned major title No. 19.
Indeed, this 19th major will be remembered for Sunday’s high-level final, but it will also be remembered as a tournament when Nadal reduced his on-court time — a necessity for success at hardcourt majors — and offered another powerful demonstration of his longevity.
Much as Roger Federer very rarely played A-level tennis at 2017 Wimbledon, but moved smoothly through that tournament and won it mostly on the basis that he had established — just before his 36th birthday — an uncommonly strong mixture of longevity and confidence, Rafael Nadal won this 2019 U.S. Open because he has preserved and reinforced his game at age 33.
Almost 5 hours.
33 years old.
The oldest men's US Open champion in 49 years.
— Trenton Jocz (@TrentonJocz) September 9, 2019
Nadal had to remain this good, this strong, this confident, to take advantage of the situations presented to him at the 2019 U.S. Open.
If he hadn’t restored his game and emerged from the dark night of 2015, this moment wouldn’t have been possible.
It is that fight from — and in — the darkness, that refusal to accept defeat in a sense much larger than one tennis match four years ago, which enabled Rafael Nadal Parera to stand tall once again at the end of 2019.