But on Monday, he showed a shrewd discipline in seeing off the 22-time Grand Slam champion in a brilliant 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal. He advanced to his first US Open quarterfinal — and the second major of his career — thanks to a masterclass in energy management and taking one’s chances when they come.
When he captured it by forcing a backhand error from Nadal, he swung his racket toward his chair and put his arms around his head. Those in his player box – including his father, who worked as a maintenance manager at JTCC; his mother; and his favorite NBA player, the Wizards’ Bradley Beal — jumped to their feet, arms in the air.
“It felt like the world stopped,” said Tiafoe, who received a shout-out from LeBron James on Twitter. “I couldn’t hear anything for a minute. I shook my hand and didn’t even know what I said. It was a blur.”
Men’s tennis now has the most wide-open Grand Slam draw since Roger Federer’s reign began in 2003.
If 33-year-old Marin Cilic defeats 19-year-old Carlos Algaraz on Monday night, he will become the only quarterfinalist (US Open, 2014) to win a major title and the only one over 28.
Tiafoe’s victory denied Nadal the chance to extend his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) in Grand Slam victories. He became the first man to beat Nadal in a major this year, with the Spaniard winning the Australian Open and French Open. (Natal withdrew from Wimbledon before his semi-final with Nick Kyrgios due to an abdominal injury.)
Nadal, who last won the US Open in 2019, came to Flushing Meadows having played two matches in the previous 50 days. He had been training with a high level of intensity ahead of the competition, but was unable to work with the same ferocity as scar tissue in his abdomen limited his mobility.
Monday showed Nadal’s unpreparedness. He had nine double faults to nine aces, while Tiafoe crushed 18 aces and four double faults.
Yet even in the best of circumstances, the 36-year-old was powered through three opponents in this tournament, including two ATP Tour players.
The 24-year-old Tiafoe provided a more physical challenge.
Tiafoe is one of the fastest players on tour and has dedicated his time to getting fit since the pandemic began. His physical progress a Steady rise In the rankings, he was ranked 24th last month (he is currently ranked 26th).
But to beat Nadal, opponents need to be of Olympic fitness.
They must mentally outwit the most relentless opponent in tennis. They should be brave enough to pay Nadal when he is performing below average. And they should jump at opportunities.
Tiafoe checks every box, not wasting an ounce of energy with his usual celebrations or crowd engagements, getting to know Nadal to some degree. He was completely focused for 3 hours and 34 minutes.
“I haven’t been able to hold a lot of tennis for a long time, I don’t have enough speed in my movements, and he was able to take the ball too quickly many times,” Nadal said. “So I couldn’t push him back. Tennis is a level game a lot of times, isn’t it? Otherwise, you have to be very, very quick and very young. And I wasn’t in that moment.”
After trading the first two sets, Tiafoe broke Nadal to take a 4-3 lead in the third game, then promptly climbed into his chair, staring straight ahead as the crowd applauded him – one of his first plays all day. .
He won the set with two shots to give himself double set point, then closed with an ace and a conservative pair of fist pumps.
“The biggest thing about things like this is that when I played him before, I was broken pretty early in every set,” Tiafoe said. “If I could serve, I was 1st, 2nd, 3rd. You start feeling good, then you play. You are in competition.
In typical Nadal fashion, the Spaniard took a 3-1 lead in the fourth set as he tried to stem Tiafoe’s momentum.
But in the next game, Nadal made two double faults and Tiafoe didn’t let the opportunity slip through his fingers. He broke Nadal and then came from 15-40 down to level the match at 3-3.
He then went on to win three consecutive games.
“For a while there, I was like jeez. You see all these young guys getting Rafa, Fed, Novak. Can I ever say I beat one of them? Today I was like, no, I’m going to do it,” Tiafoe said. “Now the kids, the grandkids have to say, ‘Yes, I beat Rafa’. I hope I won’t play him again. But I hope I finish with a win.
With Monday’s win, Tiafoe became only the second American to advance to the US Open quarterfinals.
On the women’s side, eighth seed Jessica Pegula cruised past two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-2 to reach her third major quarter-final of the year.
Becula, who owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, lacks the suspense of a matchup between Diafo and Nadal. Drama is not her style; In an era of women’s tennis, Pegula has been a constant.
Pegula, plagued by injuries early in his career, bounced back later in life by winning his first WTA title at the 2019 City Open in Washington. Along with David Whitt, a former longtime coach of Venus Williams, she devotes more time to the professional side of professional tennis: eating right, preparing thoroughly and taking care of her body.
Her tennis flourished. In singles, she has reached the quarterfinals of three majors this year to take her 23-7 record in Grand Slams since the start of 2021.
Pegula faces his toughest challenge on Wednesday when he plays world No. 1 Ika Svidek. The matchup could be at Arthur Ashe Stadium – upsets are in the air this year.