Rafael Nadal gestures to show the tall, slim Russian at the other end of center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium that he is holding new tennis balls.
The man opposite, standing so far behind the baseline he is almost next to the linesman, who is bent over and staring, makes contact with the complete loop swing he uses on forehand returns and sends the new yellow ball back diagonal and deep. He means to push the left-handed Nadal to the corner and make him use his backhand, less lethal than the topspin forehand that has been wearing down real and would-be rivals for nearly 20 years.
The rule is, every seven and nine games, alternately, so the feel on the racquet heads and the bounces stay the same, though they never do. The string tensions chosen by individual players, the tiny differences on the court’s surface, the variety of spins and bounces the balls themselves experience, mean that you are never hitting quite the same object twice.
The smallest detail makes a difference, as it has for nearly five hours. It is minutes from the longest men’s final in U.S. Open history, and the man of Manacor, on the island of Mallorca opposite Barcelona, has been here, and done it all, three times: 2010, ’13, and the year before last. At 5-4 in the fifth set, the match is on his racquet.
Daniil Medvedev looks almost skinny from afar or on TV, but he is big if the word means anything, 6-foot-6 to Nadal’s 6-foot-1, strong. He does not have the muscular build of Spain’s enduring champion, but the muscles are there, and the stamina, and the speed. You put the three together and you have one of the finest retrievers in the history of the sport. You cannot get a ball past this man. He may shank or mis-hit, for just like ball’s bounce, the racquet’s contact with the sphere must vary, but you almost never see a ball bounce off on his side of the court untouched.
The 23-year-old Muscovite, who gleefully proclaims his love of America and the working conditions he has found here, is having a glorious summer, finalist or winner in tournaments just below the level of these legendary Grand Slams of which the one in New York City is the grandest. He lost to Nadal at the fabled Rogers Cup, in effect the Canada Open, a few weeks ago, but he won the legendary Cincinnati Masters about a week later, and he beat Grigor Dimitrov in the semis here to have a shot at Nadal, who has only lost one set, against 2014 champion Marin Čilić, in two weeks of competition. The draw starts with 128 names, a safe bet they are all within the 200 best active players in a worldwide sport. One of the all-time greatest of all, Rod Laver, is on hand to watch.
The Spaniard and the Russian are both long-rally men. They go after everything hit to them and usually get it, so winning points depends on taking the time to set up the other man’s mistake more than the quick blow to put the ball away from where he can reach it. They do both, of course, and they rely on serves the way pitchers do on strikes — Medvedev already has a reputation as one of the best servers ever, and he is especially adept at using his immense service prowess, speed plus aim plus surprise, to get even when behind in a game or to close out a drawn-out one — but the essence of their games is endurance and brains.
The younger man appeared to have more of each during most of the match, even when losing the first two sets. He nearly lost the third as well and said later that he began drafting in his head the speech he would make as runner-up at the trophy presentation. Doing this, other players have confessed to the same habit, could be a way to regain the initiative, because they are acknowledging in a concession speech what went right for the winner, as well as they did wrong. And doing this, they suddenly notice something they can use or fix, theirs or the other’s.
Medvedev made two astonishing comebacks, evened the match at two sets each, and, having been broken early in the fifth, fought back from 2-5 to make it a ball game to the very end. Or almost.
Sometimes ball games go to extra innings and a walk-off homer on a bases-loaded three-and-two fastball seals the deal in a blink in time. And sometimes you have a shot at the buzzer. And in the downhill they win the race by a hundredth of a second. In tennis there is the tiebreak, but even here you have to win by two points. They say this game is mental. All games are, maybe this one a little more so.
Rafa Nadal shows one side of what they mean: he is an extreme case, on top of his superior athleticism and skill, of the man who hates to lose more than he loves to win. Daniil Medvedev shows another side, and he explains it by saying he plays chess. In fact, many tennis players play chess, and pros teach the sport by making comparisons to the board game with figurines of serfs, soldiers, clerics, royals. Medvedev, you can tell by the way he plays tennis, plays the game seriously, studies it with masters, maybe grand masters.
Each shares the other’s characteristics, of course, to a point. Nadal, aware of Medvedev’s astonishing retrieving power, has been going to the net more than ever and winning many points there. He has been making audacious and graceful drop shots from the baseline (most of which the swift Russian gets and fires back), but the Mallorcan as often as not is ready and volleys them back, sometimes engaging in a fast back-and-forth volleying duel, sometimes getting them past the other and out of reach.
He has been varying pace and bounce, trying to blunt the young man’s power and use his height against him with low slow slices to the backhand. Medvedev has been pushing the caballero from side to side, working to blunt his awesome forehand topspins by shooting to his backhand.
Both strategies work, the match is being won on smarts more than power. They both have power. They both can counter it. They are fearless and fast. But Medvedev, whose control has been impeccable in the second part of the last set, loses it now. He gets out of the 2-5 hole with a break and a hold, and at 5-4, Nadal service, Medvedev builds to break point with fearless power shots from the baseline until Nadal shanks a forehand. Then he turns cautious, which could be a shrewd move, but Nadal steps up the pace first and induces a high lob that goes long. Deuce.
Nadal makes perfect drops shot on the return of a hard serve; it comes just over the net; you would think unreachable. But Medvedev is so fast he gets to it — just in time to knock it into the net. One point, the match is on the Spanish racquet (actually, Nadal plays with Babolat, a French manufacturer, but you know what I mean, and anyway it’s the Spaniard’s racquet not the Spanish racket; we’re done with the tyranny of the state, right?)
There is no relief from the tension; even jokes cannot be whispered now. The crowd, which has been vociferous throughout, is vocally immobile, though I have to say someone, maybe inebriated, nearly passed out nearby and they had to call EMS and get her — it was a woman — out, and they did it with the caring efficiency for which America is renowned and did not even interrupt the match. But this was earlier.
Now the vast legendary stadium, biggest of tennis venues, is silent. A splendid honor guard saluted our flag earlier, with a giant Stars and Stripes nearly the size of the court, and the U.S. Air Force 334th Fighter Squadron flew over the open roof — best moment in the whole fortnight — and, also best moment in the whole fortnight, the NYPD was thanked, along with the firemen and all the uniforms, the uniforms that guard us as we have the good fortune to see this display of skill. The friendly, talented, mobilized staff have been at it, keeping people seated and the grounds clean.
The spectators — at this point you are not sure: audience? crowd? — the fans are a typical New York lot. They can be awful, as frankly they were during most of the ladies’ final, which opposed Serena Williams to a Canadian teenager, Bianca Andreescu, who, like Medvedev, represents the future this year, having won the Indian Wells Masters and the Rogers in her own Toronto — she is from suburban Mississauga, in the process of going from unknown — this is her first U.S. Open main draw to top five.
Crowds are an odd thing, malleable, sometimes dangerously so, which is why we have the electoral college, among other institutions, to guard our republic. Tennis is, we know, an “individual sport,” meaning you are supposed to treat quality and talent just the same. Tribal biases — they come in many forms, including simply favoring what you know because you are used to it — are hard to repress, however, and just as the fans hated Medvedev until he won their hearts with his guts and skill and sardonic (Russian? but that would be tribal) humor, they hated anyone who lifted a finger against Serena Williams, who has been winning here since before Miss Andreescu was born.
Ashe Stadium was louder even than during the men’s final as long as it seemed likely the women’s would be a contest. The cold fact was that while no doubt it was for love of Serena, the shock to a teenager could have been a major gamechanger. And for a time it very likely was. Having taken the first set with her own version of the way Serena Williams plays — she got to 5-1 in the second — women’s tennis matches are best of three at Slams — and then made a brilliant comeback, well worthy of the form that makes her the best player on the women’s tour, a form that she showed in earlier rounds but that was lacking in this match. Miss Andreescu lost some of the control she had enforced on herself until then. At 5-5 it looked very much like the match was on the line, because there was a clear sense that if Miss Williams broke her challenger once more, the momentum would not shift another time.
Miss Andreescu held. Miss Williams fell behind on her serve, well aware — she said so later — what she was doing, wishing she could “be Serena.”
She gave Bianca Andreescu two championship points by answering a tape-hitting shot with an out-of-bounds forehand, a costly error at this stage of the match.
She saved one with a beaut of an ace, wide. At 30-40 she missed a first serve, as she did half the time all through the match, and Miss Andreescu stepped into the second one and caught it on the rise, sending a forehand down the line that to Miss Williams maybe looked at like a Mariano Rivera fastball.
The young Canadian drops her racquet, puts her face in her hands.
Serena hugs her at the net, smiling, says something nice.
Bianca walks across the court, crosses herself because like Mariano she believes. And she kneels down and kisses the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Rolls over on her back, arms wide, lies there. Stands up and runs to her team in the stands, everyone laughing and crying and trying to find words that say what Bianca Andreescu, 19 years old, speaks with her racquet.
And 23,000 people knew this was déjà vu all over again; it was the sassy little girl from Compton, California, 22 years ago. Everybody who loves tennis knew this was a moment in eternity.
And the crowd that had been so partisan was now bipartisan because when they know they should be New Yorkers, Americans are the best and fairest people in the world, just like Canadians. You could not help feel there was something of the mob in the way they carried on during the match. But fair’s fair and glory’s glory and now they cheered Bianca, who was now the Cinderella that Serena was that day long ago in a country far — no, right here on this same court.
The same thing, though not quite — it never is — was happening now, about 28 hours later. Unable to hold at 5-5, Daniil Medvedev has a split crowd, with him and with the champion both, quite likely the same people wanting to see such brilliance all night, and he knows they are with him.
Nadal’s perfect drop shot after the lob error that he induced from Medvedev has given him ad-in, match point. He hits a serve, a good hard serve but not hard to reach, and Daniil is in position even as it flies over the net, his racquet moving through its loop, his feet just right, his eyes focused; it will be a forehand return from behind the baseline, aiming for the line on the opposite side, getting it into play and starting a rally. He has a plan, several shots ahead, as in chess.
The clichés work, it was epic, classic, great. It was worthy of the U.S. Open. It was what you expect in New York.