Rafael Nadal struggled to acclimate to New York in his early United States Opens. In his first five appearances, he did not reach even a semifinal; within that span, he had won at least one title at the three other Grand Slam events.
Things have changed dramatically in recent years, however: The courts have slowed, his knees have largely held up, and the U.S. Open has become Nadal’s land of opportunity.
“I think at the beginning of my career have been some tough moments here, losing matches,” Nadal said Friday. “But since a long time ago, every time that I came here I felt comfortable, no? I felt very competitive and fighting for the big things.”
Very big things await Nadal with one more win at the Open this year. With a victory in Sunday’s final against Daniil Medvedev, Nadal would finish with four U.S. Open titles this decade, passing Novak Djokovic’s three. Roger Federer, who dominated last decade with five consecutive U.S. Open titles between 2004 and 2008, has been surprisingly stymied this decade, winning zero titles and reaching just one final, in 2015.
“I feel comfortable here,” said Nadal, 33, who won his first U.S. Open title in 2010. “I like the atmosphere, I like the crowd. I feel a big energy when I am playing in this Arthur Ashe Stadium.”
That comfort could lead Nadal to an even cozier spot in the record book: A title Sunday would be his 19th Grand Slam title overall, putting him just one behind Federer’s 20 and three ahead of Djokovic’s 16.
“Of course, I would love to be the one who achieves more Grand Slams,” Nadal said, “but I still sleep very well without being the one who have more Grand Slams. I am happy about my career. I am very happy about what I’m doing. I’m going to keep working hard to try to produce chances. Sunday is one. It’s just one more chance, that’s all.”
Nadal has not had to encounter any opposition from Federer or Djokovic in recent years in New York. He has not faced Djokovic at the Open since winning the 2013 final; Nadal and Federer have improbably never played each other in New York.
Even beyond those two titans, Nadal has avoided most major obstacles, with draws collapsing around him twice in three years. Sunday’s final against the fifth-ranked Medvedev will be only Nadal’s third match against a top-20 opponent at the U.S. Open since 2015; on his run to the title in 2017, he did not have to play a single top-20 opponent. (His body has often been his primary obstacle; he missed the 2012 and 2014 Opens with injuries and had to retire from a semifinal last year because of a knee problem.)
Nadal won his lone previous match against Medvedev, a 6-3, 6-0 thrashing in the Rogers Cup final last month in Montreal. Medvedev has had a dominant summer hardcourt swing, going 20-2, including a win over the top-ranked Djokovic; his loss to Nadal stands apart as the only hapless performance.
“He’s one of the greatest champions in the history of our sport,” Medvedev said of Nadal. “He’s just a machine, a beast on the court. The energy he’s showing is just amazing.”
Despite the lopsided loss, Medvedev said the glimpse at Nadal would help him in a rematch on an even grander stage. (Saturday’s women’s final, between Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams, is also a rematch of a Rogers Cup final from last month) “I know what to expect,” Medvedev said. “I know how to prepare for it.”
There will be some unknowables for Medvedev, though. He has never played in a Grand Slam final, nor has anyone else in his generation. Medvedev, 23, is the first player included in the ATP’s “Next Gen” promotions, which began in 2017, to reach a major final. Dominic Thiem, 26, remains the only player currently under 30 to have won even a set in a Grand Slam final, which he did in a four-set loss to Nadal at this year’s French Open.
A win for Medvedev would represent a considerable breakthrough; a loss would merely continue the status quo. If Nadal wins Sunday, that would make 12 straight Grand Slam titles for the so-called Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic — three years of sweeping the majors after they were supposed to have been well past their primes.
Asked if he cared about preserving the oligarchic omnipotence that he, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray have held over the sport, Nadal demurred.
“We don’t need to hold this era anymore,” he said. “We have been here for 15 years almost. Hopefully, but for my personal interest. At some point, these days, going to happen sooner than later that this era going to end. Is arriving to the end. I am 33. Novak is 32. Roger is 38. Andy is 32, too.
“The clock is not stopping. That’s part of the cycle of life. I’m not much worried about this because, in tennis, always going to be great champions.”