But on Monday, with a smart 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal, he showed tactical discipline in ousting the 22-time Grand Slam champion. He reached his first US Open quarter-final – and the second major quarter-final of his career – thanks to a masterclass in energy management and taking risks when they come.
When he clinched it by forcing a backhand error from Nadal, he swung his racquet towards his chair and placed his hands around his head. Those in his player box – including his father, who worked as a maintenance manager at the JTCC; his mother; and his favorite NBA player, Wizards’ Bradley Beal, jumped to their feet with their hands in the air.
“I felt like the world had stopped,” said Tiafoe, who received a shoutout on Twitter from LeBron James. “I didn’t hear anything for a minute. Even shaking his hand, I don’t even know what I said to him. It was so blurry.”
Men’s tennis now has what is perhaps the most open Grand Slam draw since Roger Federer’s reign began in 2003.
If 33-year-old Marin Cilic beat 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz on Monday night, he would be the only quarter-finalist to have won a major title (US Open, 2014) and the only one over the age of 28.
Tiafoe’s win deprived Nadal of the chance to extend his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) in Grand Slam victories. He was the first man to beat Nadal at a major tournament this year, with the Spaniard winning the Australian Open and the French Open. (Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon ahead of a semi-final match with Nick Kyrgios due to an abdominal injury.)
Nadal, who last won the US Open in 2019, arrived at Flushing Meadows having played two matches in the previous 50 days. He had trained with great intensity before the tournament, but was unable to serve with the same ferocity as scars on his abdomen restricted his movement.
Nadal’s lack of preparation showed on Monday. He had nine double faults to nine aces, while Tiafoe crushed 18 aces to four double faults.
Yet even under less than ideal circumstances, the 36-year-old has defeated three opponents this tournament, including two ATP Tour veterans.
Tiafoe, 24, offered a lot more physical challenge.
Tiafoe is among the fastest players on the circuit and has devoted much of his time since the start of the pandemic to getting back into shape. His physical improvement resulted in a constant increase across the rankings, where he reached a career-high No. 24 last month (he currently sits at No. 26).
But opponents need more than Olympic form to beat Nadal.
They must mentally survive tennis’ most relentless competitor. They have to be brave enough to charge Nadal when he’s below par. And they should jump on opportunities when they arise.
Tiafoe ticked all the boxes, following Nadal in part by not wasting one iota of energy with his usual celebrations or engagement with the crowd. It stayed totally focused for 3 hours 34 minutes.
“I wasn’t able to hold high level tennis for long, I wasn’t fast enough in my movements and he was able to take the ball too many times early on,” Nadal said. “So I couldn’t push him away. Tennis is often a positional sport, isn’t it? Otherwise, you have to be very, very fast and very young. And I am no longer there.
After trading the first two sets, Tiafoe beat Nadal to take a 4-3 lead in the third, then immediately rushed to his chair, staring straight ahead and letting the crowd cheer him on – one of his first games in front of the crowd all day. .
He won the set with two hits down the line to give himself a double set point, then closed with an ace and some conservative punches.
“The biggest thing with stuff like that is the time I’ve played it before, I’ve been broken so early in every set,” Tiafoe said. “I was like, if I can just hold the serve, 1-all, 2-all, 3-all. Then you start to feel good, then you play. You are in the game.
In Nadal’s nature, the Spaniard took a 3-1 lead in the fourth set in an attempt to curb Tiafoe’s momentum.
But in the next match, Nadal served two double faults and Tiafoe didn’t let the chance slip through his fingers. He smashed Nadal then came back from 15-40 down to tie the game at 3-3.
He went through three straight games after that.
“For a while there, I was like, damn it. You see all these young guys getting Rafa, Fed, Novak. Will I ever be able to say that I beat one of them? Today I was like, no, I’m going to do this,” Tiafoe said. “Now it’s something to say to the kids, to the grandkids, ‘Yeah, I beat Rafa.’ I hope I never play it again, but I hope I end up with a win.
The win made Tiafoe the second American on Monday to reach a US Open quarterfinal.
On the women’s side, eighth-seeded Jessica Pegula coldly brushed aside two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-2 to make her third major quarter-final this year.
Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabers, offered little suspense in the matchup between Tiafoe and Nadal. Drama is not his style; in an era of women’s tennis defined by constant turnover, Pegula has been a constant.
Plagued by injuries early in her career, Pegula had her breakthrough relatively late in life when she won her first WTA title at the Citi Open in Washington in 2019. She went from No. 76 in the world at the end of that year to No. 7 career spot this season after teaming up with David Witt, the former longtime coach of Venus Williams, and devoting more time to the professional side of professional tennis: eating well, preparing well and taking care of your body.
His tennis flourished. In singles, she has reached the quarter-finals in three majors this year to break a 23-7 Grand Slam record since the start of 2021.
Pegula will face her toughest challenge yet when she takes on world No. 1 Iga Swiatek on Wednesday. The match will likely take place at Arthur Ashe Stadium – where upset seems to be in the air this year.