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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, September 8, 2019

NEW YORK—The ball dripped like a splotch of yellow paint on a blue canvas.

Rafael Nadal collapsed to the court soaking up a masterpiece match.

More: How Gonzales' Comeback Changed US Open

Exuding gladiator spirit against a gallant opponent, Nadal out-dueled Daniil Medvedev, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 in a ferocious US Open final fight that spanned four hours, 49 minutes and will go down as a match for the ages.

A resolute Nadal captured his fourth US Open title and 19th Grand Slam championship, moving to within one major of equaling 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer for the men’s all-time record.

"Has been one of the most emotional nights of my tennis career," Nadal told ESPN's Chris McKendry afterward. "Thank you very, very much. (It's an) incredible pleasure and honor to play in front of all of you. There is no one stadium in the world more energetic than this one, so many thanks.

"This victory means a lot especially the way the match became so difficult so tough, the nerves were so high after having the match almost under control then 5-2 and then 5-4. It has been a crazy match. I don’t know. I’m just emotional."

The 33-year-old Spaniard embraced Medvedev at net while his father Sebastian bear-hugged his mother, sister and fiancรฉe Xisca, bouncing up and down with pure joy in the player box.

This epic wild five-set thrill ride featured multiple moment shifts, tactical turns, time violation warnings, a courageous comeback from Medvedev and one final spirited emotional stand from Nadal, who shed tears as the big screen replayed all of his Grand Slam titles and the spirited Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd chanted “Rafa! Rafa!” in celebration.

"The way that the match became very dramatic at the end, that makes this day unforgettable, part of my history of this sport," Nadal said. ."Just very happy. This trophy means everything to me today. Personal satisfaction the way that I resisted all these tough moments is very high.

"Just I normally try to hold the emotions, but at the end for all these facts have been impossible today."

The top two leaders in ATP victories this year pushed each other all over the court in an electrifying encounter that saw the pair combine for 140 net trips, collaborate on pulsating points and produce 137 winners in a battle that left both men staggered at times in the final set. Nadal stretched his winning streak to 11 matches while snapping Medvedev's 12-match winning streak.

In his maiden major, Medvedev played with toughness, tenacity and intelligence roaring back from two sets down and earning three break points in Nadal's first service game of the final set. 

In the end, Medvedev, who was a first-week villain for fingering the crowd after his win over Feliciano Lopez, emerged as a fan favorite. Medvedev turned jeers to cheers: his courage staring down one of tennis' greatest fighters prompted the 23,000 fans in attendance saluting the Russian with a sustained roar for his sheer defiance and guts. 

Exuding character during the match, Medvedev was pure class in defeat thanking both Nadal and the New York City crowd who embraced him the way they had the last Russian US Open finalist, Marat Safin, 19 years ago. Medvedev, who will rise to a career-high No. 4, was fully embraced by fans and gave the love right back in his speech.

"First of all, I want to congratulate Rafa, 19th Grand Slam title is something unbelievable and outrageous," Medvedev told the crowd. "And I know earlier in this tournament I said something in a bad way and now I’m saying it in a good way: it’s because of your energy guys I'm in the final tonight. 

"It's gonna be always in my mind because I played in the biggest court in the tennis world and in the third set I was thinking what speech would I give.  You guys push me to prolong this match because you want to see more tennis and because of you guys I was fighting like hell."

This was a breathtaking battle with Nadal holding off a determined opponent 10 years his junior.

The Big 3—world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer—have combined to capture 51 of the last 59 Grand Slam crowns, including the last 12 in a row. Nadal and Djokovic split the spoils with each winning two majors this season. This is the fifth multi-major season of Nadal’s distinguished career.

Now, Rafa is closer to Roger's record than ever before while Novak declared his desire to break the major mark in his pre-tournament press conference. Nadal said tonight the record is a source of major motivation—not obsession.

"I would love to be the one who win more, but I am not thinking and I not going to practice every day or not playing tennis for it," Nadal said. "I am playing tennis because I love to play tennis.I can't just think about Grand Slams, no?

"Tennis is more than Grand Slams. I need to think about the rest of the things."

Dashing from corner to corner, Nadal started and ended this decade as US Open champion Grand Slam solidifying his status as a champion for the ages.

Contesting his fifth US Open final, the 33-year-old Nadal is the second oldest US Open champion in the Open Era after a 35-year-old Ken Rosewall beat Tony Roche to win the 1970 Open at Forest Hills.

Nadal continues to lap the ticking career clock capturing his record fifth Grand Slam title as a thirtysomething.

This from a man whom some skeptics predicted would physically fall apart from his punishing style of play. Yet today, it was the 23-year-old Russian wearing red kinesiology tape snaking around his right biceps and left thigh while the 33-year-old Spaniard sporting the sleeveless shirt was tape-free.

A packed Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included New Yorkers Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ralph Lauren and Uma Thurman as well as Tommy Haas and Stan Smith saw a high-strung start.

Hit with a time violation warning, a nervous Nadal dodged break point in the opening game.

The lanky Medvedev threatened again in the third game. Rapping every topspin drive the Spaniard sent his way, Medvedev broke for 2-1 when the second seed’s mis-hit forehand sputtered to net.

Toiling 15 hours, 11 minutes on court en route to his maiden major final, Medvedev spent three hours longer than the Roland Garros champion racing across the blue hard courts. How would the man who admitted he considered retiring from his quarterfinal conquest of Stan Wawrinka hold up physically and mentally against one of the sport’s fittest fighters?

"I definitely will remember tonight," Medvedev said. "I'm sure even talking about Rafa's 19 Grand Slams, I'm sure he remembers his first final, even though he won it and I lost it. I mean, was amazing match. It's an amazing story. All this summer is amazing for me. I will remember every moment of it. I have a really good memory if we talk about tennis. I'll definitely remember it even when I'm, like, 70 years old."

Cracking heavy first serves, the Russian was reticent to attack mid-court returns and Nadal wasted no time breaking right back to level after four games.

In jittery start for both, Medvedev pulled off a rare serve-and-volley, ladling a precision volley to save a second break point. A determined Medvedev stayed in step through 10 games.

Recognizing the Russian’s deep court positioning gave him access to angles, Nadal knifed a high backhand volley then plastered a punishing forehand for double set point in the 12th game.

Credit Medvedev for hanging tough saving the first set point on a grinding 19-point rally that sapped the lungs of both men.

On the second set point, the Russian came forward for mid-court ball and walked right into a trap. Looping a lob to Medvedev’s backhand side, Nadal coaxed an awkward reply snatching a one-set lead after 61 minutes.

Despite the fact he served just 47 percent, incurred the shot-clock warning and was down an early break, Nadal adjusted to his quirky opponent’s flat strikes and tested the Russian’s legs in a physical set.

Nineteen years after compatriot Marat Safin stunned Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final, Medvedev faced a major obstacle in an increasingly sharper Nadal. The tricky tactical tight rope Medvedev walked was trying to shorten points against the three-time champion without overplaying into oblivion.

The fifth-seeded Russian found the right balance erasing four break points, including a flying smash, forging a 2-all second-set deadlock.

Still, the physicality of the first ninety minutes played to the three-time champion’s advantage. Nadal tore through 12 of 15 points jerking Medvedev around with a break in the sixth game and confirmation for 5-2.

Catching a break when his wide ball was not called out, Nadal drew an error to snare a two-set lead. The king of clay was one set from sinking his teeth into his 19th major title trophy.

Gulping deep breaths between points, Medvedev was grunting louder than he had the entire match when he slapped a shot into net donating the break and a 3-2 third-set lead to Nadal.

Battling back with all he had left, Medvedev drew a floating error to break back in the sixth game—more than two hours after his initial break in the opening game.

There was one more act between this clash of the top two victory leaders on the ATP Tour.

Medvedev, a man who incurred the wrath of New York fans for fingering the crowd after defeating Feliciano Lopez and derisively thanking them for support, won over the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd with exceptional effort.

Some fans were chanting “Medvedev! Medvedev!” in rousing tribute. The Russian answered the call. Serving and volleying and lacing his sixth ace, Medvedev held for 6-5.

Spiking crowd support erupted as Medvedev launched himself into a lasered forehand down the line for triple set point. Nadal serve-and-volleyed on the first set point. On the second, Medvedev scampered into the court leaned low and slid a clean backhand down the line breaking to steal the third set winning five of the last seven games.

Sending a weary forehand into net, Nadal was down break point in the fourth set, but beat back the challenge holding with an ace.

Meanwhile, Medvedev showed his tactical acumen, shifting gears with a surprise serve-and-volley off a second serve and a tomahawk smash as he saved two break points in the fifth game.

Scooping a tremendous running forehand down the line that froze Nadal, Medvedev earned a set point on the Spaniard’s serve for the second set in a row.

Roaming so far back behind the baseline he could have glanced at the linesman’s watch to tell time, Medvedev read the serve-and-volley and flicked a brilliant backhand return down the line to force a fifth set and send the crowd into a frenzy.

As the stress spiked in the decider every point became baseline warfare with abrupt attacks on net coming from both men. Nadal again serve-and-volleyed break point down and hit a beautiful half-volley to deny it. But a few points later the Spaniard badly botched a volley to face a third break point.

Chair umpire Ali Nili made his presence felt hitting Nadal with his second time violation which cost him a serve. Nadal answered with a tremendous forehand and fierce uppercut. Then he caught a break as Medvedev pushed a routine volley long. All that fight left the crowd taking a collective deep breath as the first two games felt like a rollercoaster ride.

Crashing net as if channeling two-time US Open champion Patrick Rafter, Medvedev reflexed a slick volley winner to end the third game with a bang.

A churning return forced a scrambling Medvedev to net a forehand for another break point. Nadal’s fiancรฉe, Xisca, stood in the player box, waving her arms and urging fans to make noise as the crowd crescendo reached ear-piercing levels.

In a pulsating rally that spiked into the longest exchange of the match, Nadal streaked up to a floating drop shot and hit a bullet backhand in the corner breaking the Russian’s serve for 3-2 in the final set.

An Olympic gold medalist in both singles and doubles, Nadal just superb net skills attacking throughout the sixth game backing up the break with an incisive backhand volley winner. Nadal won 51 points at net, one more than Medvedev.

The frenetic fifth-set pace finally caught up with Medvedev who sailed a smash as Nadal broke again for 5-2.

Nothing came easy for Nadal on this night. His third time violation warning preceded a double fault that gave back one break.

On Nadal’s first championship point, Medvedev calmly bolted a backhand down the line.

The sliding Russian was at net guessing and off balance as Nadal banged a forehand for a second championship point. A gutsy second-serve-and-volley saved it. A fan screamed “go Rafa!” in the midst of Medvedev’s toss, but he still pumped an ace and eventually hold forcing Nadal to serve for the title again at 5-4—this time with new balls.

Saving a 10th break point Nadal nudged a drop shot winner for a third championship point.

A serve down the middle ended this epic. Nine years after his first US Open crown, Nadal rules again and tennis golden years have rarely gleamed so brightly as they did tonight.

"The last three hours of the match have been very, very intense, no?" Nadal said. "Very tough mentally and physically, too. Yeah, at the end with the video, the crowd that have been as always amazing, all these facts that make the moment super special, no? Unforgettable moment.

"At the same time Daniil created this moment, too. The way that he fighted, the way that he played, is a champion way. Just well done for him. I really believe that he will have many more chances."

It's been a life-changing year for Nadal, who contested three of the four Grand Slam finals.

The king of clay a master of all surfaces will wed next month then launch 2020 aiming to equal Federer with his 20th Grand Slam title.

"I would love to be the one who have more, yes," Nadal said. "But I really believe that I will not be happier or less happy if that happens or not happen. What gives you the happiness is the personal satisfaction that you gave your best. In that way I am very, very calm, very pleased with myself."


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