Frances Tiafoe took a huge step towards realizing his great potential by claiming the biggest win of his career by far, upsetting second seed Rafael Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 for reach the US Open. quarter-finals for the first time.
In front of a raucous home crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the 22nd seed became the first man to beat Nadal on the pitch in a grand slam this year. It is also the first time since Wimbledon 2017 that Nadal has lost before the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.
After Nadal’s final backhand hit the net, Tiafoe was in disbelief as he tried to comprehend the significance of his achievement. “I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m more than happy, I’m almost in tears,” Tiafoe said during his on-court interview.
During her press conference on Monday evening, Tiafoe recounted these emotions. “I was saying to my agent, I felt like the world had stopped. I didn’t hear anything for a minute. Even shaking [Nadal’s] I don’t even know what I told him. It was so blurry. I was already crying. I could barely see him and my team.
Coming into his third consecutive fourth-round appearance at the US Open and having reached the fourth round of Wimbledon earlier this summer, Tiafoe arrived at the world’s biggest tennis stadium full of confidence in his ability to achieve a great victory.
He served brilliantly from the start while combining nerveless attacking tennis with all its typical variety and flair. Even after Nadal leveled the game in one set and then looked to pounce as Tiafoe showed nerves late in the third set, Nadal continued to pressure him. He refused to falter.
Tiafoe served the second set with two audacious forehand winners followed by an unreturned serve. After leading 3-1 in the fourth set, Tiafoe played five games in a row, slamming an ace after a tense and tight service game for 4-3, then playing the second leg of his life to snatch victory without hesitation.
“My legs were like cement,” Tiafoe said of the long 4-3 game. “I was like, ‘Get out of the game, get out of the game,’ and I did.” He will face Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals after the No. 9 seed beat Britain’s Cameron Norrie in straight sets earlier Monday.
Tiafoe is the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants and he was drawn to tennis after his father was a janitor at a tennis club in Washington. Hype has followed him since he was a teenager but he had to be patient as an adult, watching his contemporaries rise above him in the rankings and waiting to experience such moments himself.
“For a while there I was like, ‘Jeez. You see all these young guys getting Rafa, Fed, Novak. Will I ever be able to say I beat any of them? Today I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do this.’ So 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.
NBA star LeBron James, Tiafoe’s heartthrob, was among those who paid tribute to Tiafoe’s display on Twitter. “CONGRATULATIONS Young King!!! You’ve earned it!” James tweeted alongside a video of the match-winning moment.
“I was losing it in the locker room,” Tiafoe said with a laugh. “I was going crazy. “He’s my guy. So to see him post that, I was like, ‘Do I retweet it as soon as he sends it?’ I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna be cool and pretend like I haven’t seen it and then retweet it three hours later.'”
As he digested a bitter end to a big, complicated year, Nadal brushed off questions about his preparation and the abdominal injury that meant he had only played one tournament before the US Open. He said he had been training well before the tournament and, for reasons he couldn’t identify, his level dropped from the start of the tournament.
“It’s normal that 15 minutes after a defeat in the last Slam of the season, it feels like everything is dark, everything seems difficult to have the positive energy to look ahead,” Nadal said, speaking in Spanish. “But the days will pass and I will continue as I have done all my life and I am confident that I have the inner strength to do it again.”
Nadal will return home to Mallorca, where his wife, Mery, is pregnant with their first child. His next scheduled tournament is the Laver Cup in September, but his next appearance will depend on whether his wife is pregnant and when he intends to resume touring.
“It’s been a few months that are a bit difficult in every way, that’s the reality. And from there I will start over professionally and, on a personal level, finish with something that matters in my life, that is i.e. having my first child. I hope everything goes well,” Nadal said.
For Tiafoe, everything has changed. Ahead of the event, Tiafoe said he was happy to fly under the radar after years of attention and pressure as a youth. “Now it’s over, man,” he said smiling. “I was thinking about that. Now it’s over. There is no more black horse.