For much of the 2019 tennis season, and for the last few years now, the primary conversation, or debate, on the men’s side of the game has been over who the greatest player of all-time is.
The majority opinion resided in the camp of Roger Federer, who holds the record for most Grand Slams all-time with 20. But then Novak Djokovic defeated him in what will go down as arguably the best tennis match in the sport’s history, a five-hour, five-set epic in the Wimbledon final.
The conversation then shifted to the question about whether Djokovic could catch Federer on the list, as his title bumped his number up to 16 all-time major titles.
And for the majority of the year, the name Rafael Nadal tended to be left out of this discussion. While his legion of fans were defending him, and even after he hoisted his 12th French Open title back in May, as we approached late summer and the start of the US Open, the primary storyline was whether or not Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world at that time and the winner of four of the previous five Grand Slam titles, could move one closer to Federer.
But Nadal had other plans.
The Spaniard entered the fortnight in Queens as the tournament’s second-seed, but with some lingering question marks in the month leading up to the event. After losing to Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals, he competed in just one tournament in between then and the start of the US Open, which was the Rogers Cup in Montreal.
“I think I am playing well. I am practicing the right way during these days,” Nadal said heading into the US Open. “Of course, winning in Montreal helps. I am ready for the action. Hopefully remain a couple of days of good practices. Let’s see if I’m able to make that happen.”
At this stage in his career, Nadal is well-aware of how to manipulate his schedule in order to maximize his performances when he does play in tournaments. By playing just one event and allowing his body to be fully prepared and healthy heading into the US Open, Nadal was primed to make a deep run.
“Last year, honestly, I was not that bad. Of course, my feeling on the knees are better this year than last year,” Nadal said referring to his loss in the semifinals in 2018 in New York. “Last year the problem was I played three or four very, very long matches. That’s tough. Then in that semifinal, the thing with the knee. [This year] I hope to be ready for it.”
And he was. Entering the draw in fine form, Nadal made sure to avoid any long matches in the first few rounds. He dropped just seven games in his opening match against John Millman, before getting a walkover into the third round when Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew from his match before it began. He wouldn’t drop a set until Marin Cilic won the second set in their Round of 16 match, but Nadal made quick work over the next two sets in that match: 6-1, 6-2.
Being able to stay fresh allowed Nadal to continue his dominance deep into the tournament, and into a matchup with Daniil Medvedev in the finals, the man whom he defeated in the Montreal final just weeks prior.
And what transpired on that Sunday afternoon-turned-night on the final day of the US Open became an all-time classic match between the veteran from Spain, and the youngster from Russia.
Nadal jumped out to a two-sets-to-love lead, an advantage he only lost once prior in his entire career. Medvedev forced a fifth set, but Nadal ended any dramatic comeback story right there, racing out to a 5-2 lead, and serving it out on his second opportunity to win the nearly five-hour showdown 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
“The way that the match became very dramatic at the end, that makes this day unforgettable, part of my history of this sport. I’m just very happy,” said Nadal. “This trophy means everything to me today.”
It was Nadal’s eighth US Open final, and he hoisted the winning trophy for the fourth time in his career, bringing his major total to 19, just one short of Federer’s record. The gap between the two being trimmed only adds fuel to the debate of who is the greatest of all-time, and that conversation continues to rage on.
The problem with the debate is that there is still so much left to be decided. We don’t know what is going to happen in the days, months and years to come, including if either of them will be surpassed by another player in the future, which includes the aforementioned Djokovic.
Nadal’s career is still fluid, and it remains to be seen how many more Grand Slams he can or will win in the years he has left. One person who is not concerned with numbers is the man himself.
“I am playing tennis because I love to play tennis. I can’t just think about Grand Slams. Tennis is more than Grand Slams,” said Nadal. “I need to think about the rest of the things. I play to be happy ... You can’t be all day looking next to you about if one has more, or one having a little bit less, because you will be frustrated.”
Nadal added that he has already gotten so much fulfillment out of his career and the work and effort he has put in: “All the things that I achieved in my career are much more than what I ever thought and what I ever dreamt. I would love to be the one who has more. 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 calm; very pleased with myself.”
That positive outlook towards both his tennis career and life is exuded in the passion in which Nadal plays with. Few players exhibit the amount of joy and emotion that Nadal does and has sustained over the course of two decades.
As we rapidly approach 2020, a year in which Nadal will turn 34-years-old, the man from the small Spanish island of Mallorca will pursue his 20th major title. Whether he achieves it or not, he will continue to enjoy playing the game of tennis and not concern himself with where he stands on any list, leaving that conversation to be had by all of us watching.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org