From the moment we saw Federer-Nagal in the draw for this year’s US Open, we should’ve known we’d be in for a strange tournament. It was the matchup everyone had been wanting for over a decade, and the best we could do was a knock-off. The early exits of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem further suggested as much, before the upsets of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer confirmed it. We wouldn’t be getting a ‘dream’ final. No, we’d get something far quirkier.
On one side, is Rafael Nadal, he of 18 grand slam titles, but on the other is Daniil Medvedev, a guy who prior to August was best known to tennis fans for his beef with the aforementioned Tsitsipas, or his attempts to bribe a Wimbledon umpire. Even after he made the final in Montreal and won in Cincinnati, he found his on-court accomplishments quickly overshadowed as her turned pantomime villain in New York, and having been fuelled by the boos, he stands on the precipice of grand slam glory. It has been a remarkable run through a remarkable tournament.
So can Nadal restore order to the realm? Or will Medvedev prove the young upstart to finally break through at the top? Read on for our preview of the 2019 US Open Men’s Singles Final.
A matchup of old-gen (although at this point, it’s more like old, old gen) and “Next Gen” there’s a lot on the line when Nadal and Medvedev meet on Sunday.
Should Medvedev win, it would mark the first male grand slam champion born in the 90’s (the current youngest, Juan Martin Del Potro, was born in 1988) and finally herald the start of a new era in men’s professional tennis. Should the big three retire tomorrow, there would finally be at least one player with the credentials to replace them at number one.
For Nadal, a win is important as much for his historic standing as his current ranking. The title would put him 640 points behind Novak Djokovic in the fight for year-end number one, while also giving him major number 19 and further boosting his GOAT case, being only one behind Roger Federer.
Having dropped a grand total of one set so far this tournament – against Marin Cilic in the fourth round – it’s safe to say Nadal comes-in looking in pretty good touch. If there’s any concern, it is his weird quarterfinal against Diego Schwartzman where he seemed somewhat allergic to holding a lead, but he mostly put that to rest with a more composed performance against Matteo Berrettini.
In contrast, Medvedev has been made to work that little bit extra, although the scalp of Stan Wawrinka in the quarters is a bigger name than anyone Nadal has taken out. That said, it’s less about form with Medvedev and more about what he has left in the tank, and while he got a much-needed easy match against Grigor Dimitrov in the semis, this will be his 23rd match in a little over a month.
Their only previous meeting being a 6-3, 6-0 thrashing by Nadal a few weeks ago in the Montreal final, it’s safe to say Medvedev has some serious work to do if he wants to turn the tables here.
The problem for the Russian – and indeed, just about everyone else on the tour – is that Nadal is as capable of beating you by grinding you into dust into forehand, as he is pulling miraculous shots out of his too-tighty whities. Facing such overwhelming play in Montreal, Medvedev panicked and started trying weird drop shots and ill-timed net-approaches in an attempt to end points quickly. Obviously it didn’t work, and the match ended up being easier for Nadal than many of his practice sessions.
That said, it doesn’t mean we’ll get a repeat here. Far from it, actually. While his way of hitting the ball is noticeably different, Medvedev might be the closest thing the ATP tour has to a Novak Djokovic clone, and like the Serb, he is at his best when he settles into a rally and tries to win with metronomic consistency and depth, instead of any one shot. In other words, Medvedev should’ve spent the past 48 hours watching this year’s Aussie Open final on repeat.
Assuming he finds that depth, there are then two more specific questions Medvedev must answer. The first is whether he can get out of defense/neutral when the opportunity arises, particularly in terms of opening-up the Spaniard’s backhand side. In a righty-lefty matchup – and particularly against Nadal – this is a high-risk, high-reward game, as it means hitting into Nadal’s forehand first to create the angle, and if executed improperly will put the Russian right in-line for the battering-ram. Still, it is undoubtedly the best way for the Russian to end points, and while he’ll definitely be able to make use of his favoured crosscourt backhand to do so, the way he’s been able to flatten-out his down-the-line this past fortnight, the latter shot could end up being the bigger weapon.
The second question is how Medvedev fares in the battle of serves. The Russian needs cheap points in his own games if he is to have the confidence to attack, and then get enough Nadal serves back into play to get those opportunities to do so. At 6’6 with a very solid return game, he is – at least in theory – well-equipped to do both.
On the other side, that last sentence illustrates why Nadal is such a commanding favourite, and why I’ve had to spend most of this section talking up Medvedev. Theory is one thing. The reality, which Nadal has shown over and over in the past 36 months, is that he is as ruthless as he is relentless, and is as capable of steamrolling his opponent as he is going through him.
Nadal in Four. Assuming Medvedev doesn’t show-up with the same ill-advised game plan he had in Montreal, he should be able to keep things interesting, but it’s one thing to push Nadal, it’s another to beat him. In the end, Rafael Nadal will be the last man standing, and with it, earn his nineteenth grand slam title.