Nadal, Andreescu make history, Medvedev makes friends, Serena falls short again

Less animated than the young Rafa, who used to regularly fist-pump and shout “Vamos!”, the veteran Rafa collapsed on his back, covered his face, got up, raised his arms and punched the air after his thrilling 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Daniil Medvedev. On the distaff side, newly crowned women’s champion Bianca Andreescu boasted plenty of potent shots, a strong mental game and, like her lgendary opponent Serena Williams, a ferocious competitiveness.

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory over Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the men’s singles final at the 2019 US Open in New York.   -  AFP

“Even at this stage, Nadal plays like he’s broke.” — Jimmy Connors, on the ultimate warrior.

When the US Open draw was announced, many tennis fans yearned for a final between legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who have never played each other at the tournament. Other aficionados hungered for a Young Gun to finally dethrone the long-reigning Big Three, paragons not only of sublime tennis but also admirable sportsmanship.

John McEnroe, the notorious tennis bad boy of the 1980s, wanted something else. “The game is crying out for personality,” he controversially said. So when Daniil Medvedev ripped a towel from a ball boy during his third-round victory over Feliciano Lopez, eliciting boos from the crowd, McEnroe exulted, “I love Medvedev because we need a bad guy.” After the match, a defiant Medvedev told the jeering spectators, “I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.”

But some people are simply too nice to play the role of villain — whether it be in the movies (Ronald Reagan) or on the tennis court. And Medvedev, a decent fellow, seeing the error of his misbehaving ways, later apologised, saying “What I got, I deserved.”

For Nadal, a man on a mission, there would be no contretemps. He steamrolled opponents to reach the US Open final, dropping just one set, to 2014 champion Marin Cilic. On the four previous occasions when Federer and Novak Djokovic didn’t join Nadal in a Grand Slam semifinal, the opportunistic Nadal ran the tables. This time, the rugged Spaniard outclassed surprise semifinalist No. 24 Matteo Berrettini 7-6, 6-4, 6-1.

The last man standing in the 33-year-old Nadal’s way to achieve his 19th major title was Medvedev. Before the final, the 23-year-old Russian described Nadal as “a beast on the court.” Medvedev found out just how beastly four weeks earlier when Nadal crushed him 6-3, 6-0 in the Montreal final.

Medvedev thanked the crowd for their support after the final. “You guys were pushing me to prolong this match because you want to see more tennis and because of you guys I was fighting like hell,” he said.   -  AFP

 

But Medvedev, also beast-like, is a bear, not just nominally — what his surname means in Russian — but literally. He dominated the US summer hardcourt circuit where he reached three finals and won Cincinnati, beating No. 1 Djokovic for the second time this year. With his confidence soaring, Medvedev declared, “I know when I play my best tennis, I can beat anybody.”

At the US Open, the No. 5 Medvedev had to claw his way through four straight four-set matches before outsmarting and out-steadying unseeded Grigor Dimitrov 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 in an interesting but predictable semifinal.

What could we expect when the Barcelona Beast faced the Moscow Bear before a tough crowd at Flushing Meadows?

“When Medvedev plays lower-ranked players, he tries to exploit weaknesses,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier. “When he plays top guys, he goes into slashing power tennis.”

WATCH | Bianca Andreescu 'beyond blessed' after US Open triumph

In the opening set, however, Medvedev’s game was more tactical than powerful. Featuring change of pace, assorted spins and patient counterpunching, it confounded Nadal. But no one makes mid-match adjustments better than the Spaniard. Leading 6-5, Nadal stepped up the offence. Volley, drop shot and forehand winners helped him break serve to charge ahead 7-5. “I’m not 25 any more,” earlier acknowledged Nadal, as he eschewed his grinding style of yesteryear.

The last Russian man to capture a major title was hard-hitting Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open, but Medvedev’s chances looked bleak. After Medvedev barely staved off four break points in the fourth game of the second set, Nadal blasted a serve return to force an error to break serve for 4-2. With Medvedev returning serve an untenable 10 to 15 feet behind the baseline, Nadal easily held serve twice for the 6-3 set.

Could Medvedev somehow come back?

Consider these stats: Nadal boasted a 208-1 record after winning the first two sets at major tournaments. Conversely, Medvedev had lost all four five-set matches he’d contested.

Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov defeated his idol Roger Federer for the first time in his career in five sets, in the quarterfinals.   -  AP

 

It would take courage, stamina and a change in tactics. Medvedev, whose coach Gilles Cuevara calls him “a genius,” smartly decided to stop counter-punching and start throwing more punches.

With Nadal leading 3-2 and up a service break in the third set, Medvedev broke right back for 3-all. Scrambling doggedly to reach every ball, the Russian improvised a two-handed backhand volley winner and belted an overhead winner to hold serve at 5-4. Spectators who jeered him in the first week of the tournament cheered him. Energised and hitting the ball cleanly, Medvedev was suddenly out-Nadaling Nadal. A backhand down-the-line winner gave him a break and the third set, 7-5.

The screaming fans loved it, but Nadal didn’t quite know how to handle the resurgent Russian. He served and volleyed, ran Medvedev ragged at times and tried drop shots to wear down his lean, 6’6” foe. But the tenacious Medvedev escaped two break points in the fifth game of the fourth set. Then, with Nadal serving at 4-5, 30-40 — set point — Medvedev hit the shot of the match. From 15 feet behind the baseline, he fired a backhand serve return bullet that landed just inside the baseline. Two sets all.

Spectators were chanting “Rafa! Rafa!” Nadal needed that energy to escape three break points in the critical first game of the deciding set. One escape came when he served and volleyed, executing a brilliantly angled backhand volley winner.

WATCH | A moment of magic from Rafael Nadal

Somehow, the more tired the competitors looked, the better they played. Neither player gave in or gave up. After four hours, the final stood deadlocked at 2-all. Suddenly, the plot twisted again. A backhand crosscourt winner gave Nadal a service break for 3-2, and then an unusual lob-drop shot combination led to another service break for a seemingly unstoppable 5-2 advantage. “It seems that I had, more or less, the match under control,” Nadal said afterwards. He didn’t.

Medvedev got one service break back when Nadal, who sometimes takes too long between points, had his first serve called a fault because it was his second time violation. When he missed his second serve for a resulting double fault, he lost the game. Fans booed the chair umpire, even though he did the right thing.

Down 3-5, Medvedev pulled out everything in his bag of tricks, including twice serving and volleying (once on a second serve), to survive two more break points and close the gap to 5-4 Nadal. During the changeover, Nadal’s supporters shouted “Close it out!”

But like the rest of this epic duel, it wouldn’t be easy. With Nadal serving for the title, Medvedev had a chance to go ahead 0-30. But he made a rare tactical mistake when he let Nadal’s passing shot go by, thinking it would fly out. Instead, it landed just inside the line. Medvedev failed to convert a break point, his last chance. Then Nadal finished him off with a superb drop shot winner and an unreturnable serve.

After four hours and 50 minutes of thrilling tennis, Nadal prevailed 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.

Trainer Paul Ness tends to Novak Djokovic during his men’s singles fourth round match against Stan Wawrinka. Down by two sets, Djokovic retired with a shoulder injury.   -  AFP

 

Less animated than the young Rafa, who used to regularly fist-pump and shout “Vamos!”, the veteran Rafa finally released his emotions after championship point. He collapsed on his back, covered his face, got up, raised his arms and punched the air.

When clips of his 19 major titles were replayed on the big screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal sat transfixed, savouring each of them. And then he cried. During the trophy ceremony, Nadal told the crowd, “It’s one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career with that video.”

As spectators loudly cheered the valiant loser, Medvedev graciously congratulated his conquerer, saying, “A 19th Grand Slam title is something unbelievably outrageous. The way you are playing is a joke. It is very tough to play against you. What you have done in tennis in general, I think hundreds of millions of kids watching want to play our sport.”

READ | WTA Rankings: Bianca Andreescu jumps into top five

Medvedev, the first player aged 23 or under to reach the US Open final since 2010, thanked the nearly 24,000 spectators. “I know earlier in the tournament I said something in kind of a bad way and now I’m saying it in a good way,” a contrite Medvedev said. “That it’s because of your energy that I’m in the final. You guys were pushing me to prolong this match because you want to see more tennis and because of you guys I was fighting like hell.”

Nadal has been fighting like hell for nearly two decades on the pro tour. Many experts predicted that the injury-plagued Spaniard would have a short career. But he proved them wrong and now he stands just one Grand Slam title behind Federer’s record 20. Those who debate the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) should factor in Nadal’s gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and call it a draw for now. (Neither Federer or Djokovic has won a gold medal.)

But there is no debate about the Big Three. For the third straight year, they greedily grabbed all four Grand Slam titles. In fact, these ageless tennis titans have amassed an astounding 51 of the last 57 major titles.

As McEnroe rightly wondered, “When will we have a changing of the guard?”

A star is born and a superstar dims

“Pressure is a privilege.” — Billie Jean King.

“I am not the type of person who lets the pressure get to him. I try to see it as my friend. I align with it to calm me down.” — Neymar.

“The only pressure, I think, is the pressure I put on myself.” — Bianca Andreescu.

Bianca Andreescu of Canada poses with the US Open women’s singles trophy at Top of the Rock in New York. The extroverted teenager who defeated top favourite Serena Williams, of the United States, in the women's singles final, matched the intense Williams with shouts of “Come on!” every time she hit a terrific shot or won a big point.   -  AP

 

Bianca Andreescu calls her mother “the coolest person I know” and her role model. Maria Andreescu is also likely the most influential person in Bianca’s meteoric rise to tennis stardom because she introduced her daughter to meditation and yoga when Bianca was 12.

“I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is I meditate,” said the 19-year-old Canadian. “It’s definitely showing through my matches where I’m staying in the present moment a lot of the time. I think the mental aspect of the game separates the best from the rest.”

Andreescu would need to summon that well-practised focus as much as her complete game and canny tactics in her first Grand Slam final at the US Open. On the other side of the net, she faced living legend Serena Williams. And inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, she was surrounded by a boisterous, pro-Williams crowd that would cheer not only Serena’s winners but also Andreescu’s errors.

The precocious Andreescu lacked experience compared to 37-year-old Williams, competing in her 33rd major final. In fact, Andreescu was born nine months after Williams won her first Grand Slam at the 1999 US Open. Williams, who was going for an elusive, record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, had frustratingly lost her last three major finals after becoming a mother two years ago. In a chaotic final at Flushing Meadows last year, Williams lost her temper, berated the umpire, and self-destructed against Naomi Osaka, another rising star playing in her maiden major final. Williams also suffered costly mental meltdowns during upset losses at the 2009 and 2011 US Opens.

“The elephant in the room is pressure,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, an 18-time major champion, before the final. “Who is going to handle the pressure better?”

“All of it honestly, truly is super frustrating,” Serena Williams said. “I’m, like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away. I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player. And I just got to just keep fighting through it.”   -  AFP

 

For high-pressure, high-stakes situations, visualisation is yet another valuable technique in Andreescu’s mental arsenal. To visualise achieving her dream of winning the US Open, Andreescu wrote herself a make-believe prize-money cheque after she won the Orange Bowl junior title three years ago. “Ever since that moment, I just kept visualising that,” she recalled after defeating Elise Mertens in the US Open quarterfinals.

Darren Cahill noticed Andreescu’s unusual sense of destiny three years ago during a car ride with her and Simona Halep whom he coached then. Cahill, now an ESPN analyst, recalled, “After we got out of the car, Simona said, ‘Wow! That girl is confident.’ Andreescu has a self-belief we haven’t seen in a young player in a long time. After she won her first match [at this US Open], she said, ‘One down and six more to go.’ How many young players say that?”

Seemingly born to be a tennis champion, Andreescu boasts rare a priori confidence — reminiscent of cocksure Jimmy Connors and wunderkind Boris Becker. It never wavered even though Andreescu, who lost in the first round of the 2017 and 2018 US Open qualifying, started this year ranked a lowly 178.

That ranking rose rapidly as the bulky, 5’7” Andreescu reached the Auckland final in January and stunned the tennis world by winning Indian Wells in March. A torn shoulder rotator cuff forced her to retire in the Miami round of 16, withdraw in the French Open second round and miss Wimbledon. Healthy again, the Canadian-born Andreescu of Romanian ancestry captured the Rogers Cup in Toronto, beating Williams, who was forced to retire, trailing 3-1 in the final, because of back spasms in their only previous match.

Heading into the US Open, the rampaging No. 15 Andreescu not only had gone unbeaten in completed matches since March 2, but more importantly, had racked up a perfect 7-0 record against top-10 opponents.

If Andreescu’s aggressive style make experts remark “She plays more like a guy,” that is no accident. During their first trip to Japan, she and her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, watched a lot of men’s matches, especially those of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, possessors of the best forehands in tennis history. The coach and student then decided Andreescu should play just like them with more topspin and power.

Unlike many of No. 8-ranked Williams’ opponents, Andreescu would not be intimidated. She boasted plenty of potent shots, a strong mental game and, like Williams, a ferocious competitiveness. “She's a warrior, a street fighter,” said Bruneau.

Andreescu showed her fearlessness, indeed an almost lack of respect, when she won the toss and elected to receive against the greatest server of all time. The clever decision paid off when Williams nervously double-faulted twice to lose her serve in the opening game.

Naomi Osaka (right) of Japan consoles teenager Coco Gauff of the US after their third round match. Unfortunately, the top-seeded Osaka was sent packing in the next round by Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic.   -  AFP

 

As Andreescu held on to her early lead, she held her own with Williams in two key ways. She dictated points as often as Williams, something the muscular former queen seldom encounters. And the extroverted Andreescu matched the intense Williams with shouts of “Come on!” every time she hit a terrific shot or won a big point.

Early in the tournament, Williams predicted Andreescu would reach the final. “This was the player Serena didn’t want to play,” said Evert after the rock-em, sock-em seventh game. Fighting like a wounded lioness, Williams staved off five break points. The partisan crowd roared with delight for their heroine each time.

But there would be no reprieve for Williams in the ninth game. A backhand volley winner and a forehand crosscourt winner gave Andreescu a break point. Then nerves did Williams in again. She double-faulted in the net. First set — 6-3 for Andreescu.

Could the proud six-time US Open champion come back? The stats weren’t auspicious. In major finals, Williams had only a 2-9 record after losing the first set (compared to 21-0 after winning it).

Williams had talked with candour about needing to rediscover her mojo in Grand Slam finals — she won 21 of 25 before losing five of her last seven. Even her diehard fans, including the Duchess of Sussex in her player’s box, looked worried as she lost her serve at love, nervously double-faulting again on break point, to go down 2-0 in the second set. The anguish on Williams’ face grew as she was broken two more times to give Andreescu a seemingly insurmountable 6-3, 5-1 lead. With the teenager serving, Williams belted a vicious 87-mph forehand service return winner to escape a championship point.

That shot ignited a valiant comeback. As Williams conjured two service breaks of her own to tie the score at 5-all, the deafening roars from the 24,000 spectators at one point forced Andreescu to cover her ears with her hands. “It was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think,” Andreescu told ESPN later.

Just as suddenly as Williams had rebounded, Andreescu regrouped. She held serve with the poise of a veteran and, on her fourth championship point, cracked a huge serve return than Williams couldn’t handle. Game, set and title 6-3, 7-5 for the new teen queen.

“I love to see such a big-match player at such a young age,” said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst. “She handled the pressure in her first Grand Slam final.” In sharp contrast, “Serena is not able to play her best tennis on these big occasions. It’s all mental,” Davenport said. “She was so dominant before the final, but none of that mattered.”

Taylor Townsend upset the Wimbledon champion Simona Halep of Romania in three sets in the second round.   -  AFP

 

Indeed, Williams channelled her past greatness as the tournament progressed, overwhelming 18th-seeded Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-0 in the quarters and fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-1 in the semis. What mattered most, though, if you’re a champion or want to be one, is winning the final.

“All of it honestly, truly is super frustrating,” Williams said afterwards. “I’m, like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away. I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player. And I just got to just keep fighting through it.”

But the fight, the quest for Grand Slam No. 24, looks more quixotic than ever. Williams turns 38, ancient for pro players, on September 26. She hasn’t won a tournament, let alone a major, since the 2017 Australian Open.

The Next Gen has arrived and now rules the roost. The major champions this season featured Osaka, 21, Ashleigh Barty, 23, Halep, 27, and now the youngest and most self-assured, Andreescu, 19. They and a host of young players, such as Belinda Bencic, 22, Amanda Animisova, 17, and 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff, will all likely keep improving, while Williams declines.

Pure power players, most notably Serena and Venus Williams, dominated women’s tennis this century. But Barty and Andreescu, highly athletic and versatile players in the mould of Justine Henin, are proving that power plus finesse is an ideal combination.

Like other teen queens, such as Evert, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis, Andreescu created a host of “firsts” at this memorable US Open. She’s the first player born in the 2000s to win a Grand Slam title, the first to win the US Open trophy in their main-draw tournament debut in the Open Era, and first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era. Andreescu also joined Seles as the only other woman to capture a major title in only her fourth Grand Slam main draw appearance. Finally, in this fascinating “battle of the ages,” she and Williams broke the record for the largest age gap —18 years and 263 days — between Grand Slam finalists in the Open Era. Canada has produced two Grand Slam singles finalists this decade, Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic, but both have faded as contenders. That won’t happen to Andreescu, predicts ESPN analyst and two-time major finalist Mary Joe Fernandez.

“She’s the real deal. This is not a fluke,” said Fernandez. “We’re going to see Bianca Andreescu win multiple majors. She has the complete package — how aggressive she is, how well she moves, how beautifully she serves. But what impresses me most is her mental side. She’s tough as nails. She reminds me of Chris Evert. When the pressure was on, Andreescu produced her best tennis. And you don’t see that often, especially in teenagers.”

Now Andreescu goes from being the hunter to being the hunted. It will be fascinating to see how well she handles this new and very different pressure.