But on Monday, with a clever 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Rafael Nadal, he demonstrated tactical discipline in toppling the 22-time Grand Slam champion. He’s reached his first US Open quarter-final – and the second major quarter-final of his career – thanks to a master class in energy management and seizing opportunities when they come up.
When he grabbed it by forcing a foul with a backhand kick from Nadal, he threw his racket toward his chair and put his hands around his head. Those in his player’s chest – including his father, who worked as a maintenance manager at JTCC; his mom; And his favorite NBA player, Bradley Beal, jumped on their feet with his hands in the air.
“It felt like the world had stopped,” said Tiafoe, who received a shout-out on Twitter from LeBron James. I couldn’t hear anything for a minute. Even shaking his hand, I don’t even know what I said to him. It was very blurry.”
Men’s tennis now enjoys what may be the biggest Grand Slam draw wide open since the start of Roger Federer’s reign in 2003.
If 33-year-old Marin Cilic defeats 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz on Monday night, he will be the only quarter-finalist to win a major title (US Open, 2014) and the only one over 28.
Tiafo’s victory denied Nadal the opportunity to extend his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) at the Grand Slam. He was the first man to beat Nadal at a major tournament this year, as the Spaniard won the Australian Open and the French Open. (Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon before his semi-final match with Nick Kyrgios due to an abdominal injury.)
Nadal, who won the US Open the last time he ran in 2019, has arrived at Flushing Meadows after playing two games in the past 50 days. He was training at a high level of intensity before the tournament but couldn’t serve with the same intensity because the scar tissue on his stomach limits his movement.
He showed Nadal’s lack of readiness on Monday. He had nine double faults for nine aces, while Tiafoe smashed 18 aces into four double faults.
But even in less than ideal conditions, the 36-year-old has managed to beat three competitors in this tournament, including two ATP Tour veterans.
Tiafoe, 24, presented much more of a physical challenge.
Tiafoe is among the fastest players on the tour and has devoted a lot of his time since the start of the pandemic to getting fitter. His physical improvement led to a fixed height By world rankings, last month he reached the 24th highest in his career (he is currently ranked 26th).
But opponents need more than Olympic fitness to beat Nadal.
They must be more mentally strong than the unrelenting competitor in tennis. They should be brave enough to make Nadal push when his performance is below average. And they should jump at opportunities when presented.
Tiafoe checked every box, keeping up with Nadal in part by not wasting a single iota of energy on his usual celebrations or crowd engagement. He remained perfectly focused for 3 hours and 34 minutes.
“I wasn’t able to keep a high level of tennis for long, I wasn’t fast enough in my movements and he was able to take the ball a few times very early,” Nadal said. So I couldn’t push it back. Tennis is a center sport often, isn’t it? If not, you need to be very fast, very fast and very young. And I’m not at that moment anymore.”
After trading the first two sets, Tiafoe smashed Nadal to a 4-3 lead in the third, then immediately lunged back into his chair, staring straight ahead and letting the crowd applaud him – one of his first plays for the audience all day.
He won the group by two strokes down the line to give himself a double set point, then closed in with an ace grip and a couple conservative pumps.
“The most important thing about things like this is the time I played before, I broke very early in every set,” said Tiafoe. “I was like, ‘If I can keep serving, 1-all, 2-all, 3-all. Then you start to feel like you’re fine, and then you just play. You’re in the match.'”
In Nadal’s nature, the Spaniard took a 3-1 lead in the fourth set in an effort to stop Tiafoe’s momentum.
But in the next match, Nadal made two double faults and Tiafoe did not let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Nadal broke, then went back 15-40 down until the match at 3-3.
He cruised through three straight games after that.
“For a while, I was like, Oh my God. You see all these guys getting Rafa, Fed, Novak. Will I be able to say I beat one of them? Today I was like, No, I’m going to do that,” Tiafoe said. This is something you say to the children, to the grandchildren, ‘Yes, you defeated Rafa.’ I hope I don’t play it again. But I hope I end up with a win.”
The win made Tiafoe the second American to reach the US Open quarter-finals on Monday.
On the women’s side, eighth seed Jessica Pegula sent off double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-2, to reach the quarter-finals for the third time this year.
Pegula, whose parents own NFL Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabers, provided little of the suspense found in the Tiafo-Nadal match. Drama is not her style. In the era of women’s tennis defined by constant ripples, Pegula has been a constant.
Injured early in her career, Pegula broke out relatively late in life by winning her first WTA title at the Citi Open in Washington in 2019. She rose from 76th in the world at the end of that year to seventh in this career. The season after teaming up with David Witt, former coach of Venus Williams for a long time, and dedicating more time to the professional side of professional tennis: eating right, preparing well and taking care of her body.
Tennis blossomed. In singles, she reached the quarterfinals in three majors this year to set a record 23-7 at Grand Slams since the start of 2021.
Pegula will face her toughest challenge yet when she plays world number one Iga Swiatek on Wednesday. The match will likely be at Arthur Ashe Stadium – as turmoil appears to be in the air this year.