NEW YORK — For a tennis champion devoted to his routines, Rafael Nadal has certainly managed to navigate plenty of change.
Signs of the times were everywhere as he prevailed in a draining and dazzling US Open final over Daniil Medvedev on Sunday night.
When Nadal won his first US Open in 2010, there was no retractable roof high overhead, no digital serve clock in a corner of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Even the rival looming across the net Sunday was a break with tradition. This was not one of Nadal’s usual measuring sticks: not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka.
It was Medvedev, an unorthodox and unpredictable shotmaker from Russia with a taste for risk but also an astonishing ability to extend points. Nadal, one of tennis’s great defenders, can certainly relate.
Few elite tennis players have looked as slow at first glance as the gangly, 6-foot-6-inch 23-year-old Medvedev and yet been so blazingly quick to the corners or to a well-placed drop shot.
But while the youth movement is well underway in the women’s game, regime change will have to wait a little longer still in men’s tennis.
Nadal made sure of that, just barely, by snuffing out Medvedev’s comeback to win the final Grand Slam match of the 2010s: 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
It was a great tussle and a fitting way to mark the end of a great decade in men’s tennis at the majors.
The match had the requisite length — at 4 hours, 50 minutes — to do justice to all the epic finals of the last 10 years.
It also preserved the Big Three’s logic-defying dominance. At the end of the 2009 season, the top three players in the rankings were Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
On Monday, the same three men are still on top, with Djokovic at No. 1, Nadal in hot pursuit and Federer a more distant No. 3.
Bianca Andreescu, a 19-year-old Canadian, won the U.S. Open on Saturday to become the first woman born in the 2000s to win a Grand Slam singles title.
The men are still waiting for a player born in the 1990s to win one, although Medvedev certainly gave it a fine effort.
“It’s a different tour, different tennis,” said Carlos Moya, a former No. 1 player who now coaches Nadal. “It’s very exciting to see new faces coming up in the WTA, and maybe we need that here as well. For the people, it’s good to see new faces. For us in our team, it’s better that Rafa stays up there, but of course the tour needs exciting new players like Medvedev or the other guys. Sooner or later, they will win Slams.”
It cannot be sooner than 2020 now. The 2010s are closed, and Nadal, Djokovic and Federer finished them off by sweeping the singles titles at the last 12 Grand Slam tournaments.
The race to see who will end his career with the record for most majors is certainly a motivator. Federer is at 20, Nadal now at 19 and Djokovic at 16.
“I have to say, these three guys are legends,” Medvedev said of Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer. “The way they’re playing tennis is just unbelievable. When you are out there, tactically it’s tougher than against anybody else.”
“Some of the balls he was getting to were incredible,” Nadal said.
“I think he had to come out of his comfort zone, to do things he doesn’t usually do.”
The same could be said for Nadal, but on balance, he was more in his element after all the marathon five-setters he has played in over the last 15 years. Medvedev’s generation will play best-of-five sets only in the Grand Slam tournaments. Nadal came of age also playing best-of-five in Davis Cup and even in the Olympic final and some Masters 1000 finals on the regular tour.
Medvedev, for all the powers of recuperation that were on display in New York, is now 0-5 in five-setters. Nadal is 22-12.
Nadal made it clear that experience has its pros and its cons.
“I’m 33, not 23,” he said. “That’s not an advantage. But at some point mentally, yes. Because even if you are in a negative dynamic, you know from your experience and you really believe that you can have your chance in the fifth.”
So it turned out. Some distant day, even Nadal will run out of steam. He even struggled with his motivation earlier this year after his latest series of injuries and considered calling off his clay court season altogether. But he pushed through the ennui with Moya’s help and recovered his mojo. The payoff was big: a 12th French Open title, a run to the semifinals at Wimbledon and another U.S. Open title.
As a new decade looms, the old guard still rules.