Rafa Nadal found it “impossible” to contain his emotions after defeating Daniil Medvedev in five thrilling sets to claim his 19th grand slam title at the US Open.
The Spaniard, 33, led by two sets and a break, but he needed to halt a thrilling comeback from Russian rebel Medvedev to win an epic showdown 7-5 6-3 5-7 4-6 6-4.
After serving out for his fourth US Open title in a tense final game, a tearful Nadal crumpled to the floor in tears.
“The last three hours were very intense, mentally and physically,” Nadal said. “The moment was super special.
“The way that the match became demanding at the end makes this day unforgettable in my history in this sport. This trophy means everything for me today.
“I normally try to hold the emotions but in the end it was impossible.”
Medvedev was playing in his first grand slam final, having revelled in his new role as public enemy number one of the New York crowd.
The 23-year-old had been jeered by those in the stands throughout the fortnight after he flipped them the middle finger during the third round.
Yet when he launched an unlikely counter-attack in the third set it was like Rocky in reverse, the fans around a packed Arthur Ashe suddenly chanting his name.
Medvedev admitted afterwards that he did not want to disappoint his enthusiastic supporters. “I could tell they wanted more tennis so the only thing going through my mind was winning the next point and game,” he said. “I was from Russia and I am in the USA and they were cheering me!”
However, Nadal dug as deep as he has probably ever had to to secure a dramatic victory in four hours and 50 minutes to move to within one major title of Roger Federer’s record tally of 20.
Nadal, whose hackles were raised when he was given a time violation at break point down in the very first game, took the opening set with a break at 6-5 thanks to a whipped forehand winner and a lob which Medvedev dumped into the net.
The Russian saved four break points in his next two service games but the jabs kept on landing, Nadal breaking through again for 4-2 and taking a two-set lead.
Fatigue seemed to be setting in for Medvedev, who was being pushed all around the court, and when a backhand hit the net at break point in the fifth game of the third set he looked beaten.
Medvedev recalled: “I was thinking that in 20 minutes I have to give a speech as the losing finalist so what should I say? So I just fought for every point.”
He kept swinging, somehow breaking back to level, and with the crowd now firmly behind their new darling, he repeated the dose at 6-5 to take it to a fourth set with Nadal now the man looking vulnerable.
Gutsy hold after gutsy hold followed until Nadal sent a forehand wide and Medvedev had a break point, which he dispatched with a stunning return to force a decider.
Explaining the turnaround, Medvedev said afterwards: “It’s all about tactics. The first two sets I was close but Rafa had an answer to everything I did so I continued to try something new.
“I went to the net sometimes, did drop shots and some slice. I was thinking ‘what else should I do?’ but then I found something that made it more level.”
It was sensational stuff, but the odds were still stacked against Medvedev. He had never before won a five-set match and Nadal had lost only twice from two sets up in his career.
Going into the final set, Nadal believed he was at a physical disadvantage to an opponent 10 years younger.
He said: “Being 33 is not an advantage against a 23 year old but mentally, yes, it can be an advantage because if you are in a negative dynamic you know through experience that you still have a chance in the fifth.
“I needed to resist losing myself at the beginning of the fifth. I thought that if I was able to hold my serve that I could have my chances.”
Nadal’s delaying tactics were irking the Russian but he fashioned two break points, then a third, only for Nadal to escape again.
Nadal admitted afterwards that he feared the worst. “When you have break point against and you are in trouble but I really tried to avoid these thoughts,” he said.
“I always believe I am going to have chances. I was always in front in the score until the the end but I was in trouble.”
When Nadal eked out a break point of his own at 2-2, Medvedev aced him. But when Nadal created another, a double-handed backhand putting him back in control.
Still the drama continued.
Nadal broke again but, serving for the match, he was given a second time violation by umpire Ali Nili and docked a serve at break point down, and promptly sent his second serve wide. Umpiring controversy is not confined to Serena Williams here, it seems.
Medvedev saved two match points on serve but when Nadal had the ball in his hand again he finally got over the line, a long Medvedev return bringing to an end a truly remarkable final.
Nadal’s tally of 19 grand slams puts him just one behind his long-time rival Federer and three ahead of Novak Djokovic (16).
But Nadal says becoming the most decorated tennis player in history is not what drives him to succeed as he approaches his mid 30s.
He said: “You can’t be all the time looking at the person next to you having more or less because you will be frustrated.
“I would love to be the one who has more but I would not be more or less happier if that happens. It is about giving your best.
“I am not thinking or practising for it. I play tennis because I love to play tennis. Tennis is more than grand slams. I need to think about other things.
“I play to be happy and today’s win makes me super happy. If the competition attracts fans that’s good for this sport. I am honoured to be part of this battle.”
Nadal is confident that Medvedev has a bright future ahead.
He said: “He is 23, the year he is having is very impressive and he has a great future. He will be able to win grand slams. It’s impossible to predict the future but his career looks very, very well.”