What you missed from Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev’s epic US Open men’s final

NEW YORK — The 2019 US Open men’s final lacked the buzz and glamour of Serena Williams‘ star-studded women’s final against Bianca Andreescu on Saturday, but it more than made up for it with spectacular shot-making, nail-biting drama, sustained fan elation — and anguish. Rafael Nadal defeated Grand Slam final newcomer Daniil Medvedev in an epic final 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. The match lasted 4 hours, 51 minutes, almost all of it edge-of-your-seat riveting. Here’s why it was so special.

The quality of the rallies

Many thought before the match that Medvedev, a 23-year-old from Russia, would not be able to hold his own against Nadal when it came to the sustained exchange of shots. After all, Nadal crushed Medvedev in the recent Masters final in Montreal 6-3, 6-0. But Medvedev, who has a breathtaking command of the shotmaking repertoire, not only hung in there but also seized the momentum in the third and fourth sets. Nadal simply couldn’t deliver the TKO with his greatest asset, his rally game. In the end, Daniil even belted more winners 75-62.

There was no shortage of break points in this one, nor of great shots fending those off. Nadal had more (21), good for six breaks (29% conversion percentage). Medvedev had 15 break points and converted five, or 33%.

Nadal’s fifth gear

It appeared that the air was quickly escaping from Nadal’s balloon when Medvedev cracked a massive backhand service winner down the line to break Nadal in a quick end to the fourth set. Medvedev held with ease to start the fifth set and then held two break points against Nadal’s serve in the next game. But Nadal held and then turned on the afterburners, elevating his game to the point that he was able to break Medvedev in the fifth game. With Medvedev reeling, Nadal broke him again in the seventh game. That’s not a bad performance for a man 10 years older than his opponent, but that raw first-time Grand Slam finalist then broke back. In the end, Nadal’s big lead held up.

Medvedev’s serve

Time and again, Medvedev reached back when he really needed to, pulling an ace or unreturnable serve out of his hat. Best example: Medvedev saved the second of two match points Nadal had in the ninth game of the fifth set with a massive blast to Nadal’s forehand, and back at deuce, he delivered two more aces and ultimately saved the game. Medvedev hit 14 aces, nine more than Nadal, and matched him in the unreturned serves departments, with both men at 19%. Medvedev posted a superior average speed on both his first and second serves.

Nadal’s volley

The shot is one of the best-kept secrets in tennis, and in this final, the second-longest of Nadal’s career, it might have saved him from a dispiriting loss. Nadal won an excellent 78% of points he played at the net. Many of those winning volleys came at critical times, when Medvedev was hitting baseline blasts and demonstrating that long rallies weren’t necessarily to Nadal’s advantage. Nadal approached the net 66 times, including 20 points on which he chose to serve and volley.

Medvedev’s touch

It’s difficult to quantify drop shots and other shots requiring delicate touch in the stats, but Medvedev used his soft hands to great effect, luring Nadal to the net with drop shots, then firing passing shots by him. Nadal kept picking away at Medvedev’s backhand with low slices, hoping that Medvedev, at 6-foot-6, would have trouble getting down to those shots, especially on the move, with two hands on the shaft of the racket. But Medvedev usually handled the tricky shots, flicking or flipping his wrists, sometimes with enough force to put Nadal in an awkward position for his next shot.

Perhaps the best statistic showing how close this match was — and why Nadal was able to win — lies in the rally-length stats. Nadal won all three categories, though by slim margins. In short rallies (zero-to-four shots), he prevailed by a slim margin of 101-98. The biggest disparity was in rallies of five-to-eight shots, but it was a modest advantage of 40-33. Nadal also won the battle of rallies lasting nine shots or more 36-33.