Rafa Nadal has never taken his talent for granted. Of the three players who have defined his era, he is the most humble. So, as he stands on the verge of surpassing Roger Federer’s 20 majors and drawing away from the 16 owned by Novak Djokovic, he knows that beating one of the hunting pack, Daniil Medvedev, to win his fourth US Open was significant in more ways than one.
Sunday’s teeth-grinding five‑setter, which he could have ended way before its eventual four hours and 50 minutes duration, proved to everyone – including the winner – that, at 33, he has the will to continue.
For others of that age or thereabouts the questions are different: none dreams of bettering Federer or Djokovic; all of them are happy to be still standing, including Andy Murray, whose comeback from hip surgery continues steadily away from the main stage.
For Nadal it has always been like this. Since he won the first of his 19 majors – at Roland Garros, where he would win another 11 and where he surely will be favourite for as long as he wants – he has lived in Federer’s shadow. So has Djokovic.
Often Federer’s grace under pressure, his sheer artistry in a physical sport and his winning demeanour has made him unbeatable in the eyes of millions. Even when he loses they love him still. There are books written about the love affair. No such tome exists for Nadal or Djokovic. They are praised prosaically, for the technical mastery they have over a difficult sport.
Yet those who have watched Nadal closely will have seen how the hard work he does away from the court manifests itself in subtle ways in the heat of battle – and there was a lot of heat on Sunday night when, after butchering a smash in the third set when he was close to a straightforward victory, he found ways to win.