Medvedev’s resolve, creativity, and defensive prowess evened the match at two sets all, and his high level of play briefly unnerved Nadal. The fifth set had the two men going toe-to-toe in one lung-busting rally after another, but Nadal played with a bit more tenacity on the points that mattered most. In the face of Medvedev’s gutsy, heroic effort, Nadal confirmed his standing as one of the most beastly players in the history of men’s tennis.
By winning the final grand-slam tournament of the season, Nadal brought himself within one title of Roger Federer’s record for the most slams ever won by a male player. Barring a catastrophic injury along the lines of a ruptured Achilles tendon or torn ACL, Nadal seems more likely to surpass his great rival in that category. He’s almost five years younger, and while Federer’s longevity in tennis is approximate to Tom Brady’s in football, Federer will likely retire before Nadal, meaning that Nadal will have more opportunities to collect grand-slam hardware. Just as important, Nadal is still the best clay-court player in the world by an almost unfathomable margin. He has won the past three French Opens without once being pushed to five sets. He will remain the prohibitive favorite at that tournament until another player proves a worthy adversary.
Whether Nadal chooses to let his pursuit of the all-time grand-slam singles title record define his career—whether it’s even a distinction he cares deeply about—he leaves New York looking like the best player in the world and as hungry for success and enthusiastic about the game as he was when he won his maiden slam as a teenager in 2005. Ten years ago, Nadal seemed unlikely to still be one of the best players in the world at 33, a relatively advanced age in tennis. During his first decade on the professional tour, he was plagued by knee tendinitis and had a tendency to succumb to other ailments, such as an abdominal injury at the 2009 U.S. Open. It was widely assumed that Nadal would have a stellar but short career, that his body would break down and force him to retire before he had the opportunity to rewrite the record books. But the emphasis Nadal places on ending points as early as possible, which allows him to avoid long rallies, has helped preserve his body. Over the past two seasons, he’s morphed from an injury-addled grinder into the most consistent player on the tour, advancing to at least the semifinals at the past seven grand slams—a mark that neither Federer nor Novak Djokovic, another paragon of consistency, has matched.
In Medvedev, Nadal faced one of the few players with the requisite defensive skills and physical endurance to transform any match into an endless baseline slugfest. Medvedev has been the hottest and most interesting player on the men’s tour this summer. He made the finals in each of the three hard-court tournaments he played prior to the U.S. Open, capping that endurance-testing run with a title at the prestigious Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. He arrived in New York battle-tested and bruised, and quickly assumed the role of tournament antihero, displaying a brand of feisty, crowd-baiting behavior that evoked memories of proud bad boys such as Jimmy Connors and Ilie Năstase.