But he showed the discipline of a tactician in a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Rafael Nadal on Monday, putting the 22-time Grand Slam champion on the line Get off the stage. He reached his first U.S. Open quarterfinal — and the second major quarterfinal of his career — thanks to a masterclass in energy management and taking chances when they came.
When he locked the racket by forcing Nadal into a backhand error, he threw the racket toward the chair, cradling his hands over his head. Those in his players box — including his father, who worked as a maintenance manager at the JTCC; his mother; and his favorite NBA player, the Wizards’ Bradley Beal — jumped, hands up held in the air.
“I feel like the world has stopped,” said Tiafoe, who received a cry from LeBron James on Twitter. “I couldn’t hear anything for a minute. Even shaking his hand, I didn’t know what I said to him. It was too vague.”
Men’s tennis now has perhaps the widest draw at a Grand Slam since Roger Federer came to power in 2003.
If Marin Cilic, 33, beats 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz on Monday night, he will become the only quarterfinalist to win a major (the 2014 U.S. Open) and the only A player over the age of 28.
Tiafoe’s victory cost Nadal the chance to extend his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) at the Grand Slam. He was the first man to beat Nadal in a major this year, with the Spaniard winning the Australian Open and French Open. (Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon with an abdominal injury before the semifinal against Nick Kyrgios.)
Nadal, who won the U.S. Open the last time he played in 2019, came to Flushing Meadows with two matches in the past 50 days. He had been practicing at a high intensity before the game, but couldn’t serve with the same ferocity because scar tissue in his abdomen limited his movement.
Nadal showed his lack of preparation on Monday. He had nine double faults to nine aces, while Tiafoe broke four double faults with 18 aces.
However, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, the 36-year-old has beaten three opponents in this tournament, including two ATP Tour veterans.
Tiafoe, 24, provided more physical challenges.
Thiafo, one of the fastest players on the tour, has spent most of his life getting fitter since the pandemic began. His physical improvement led to a steady rise in the rankings, and he reached a career-high ranking. 24 last month (he is currently No. 26).
But to beat Nadal, opponents need more than just Olympic fitness.
They have to outlast tennis’ most unrelenting rivals mentally. When Nadal is below average, they must be brave enough to make him pay. They must seize the opportunity.
Tiafoe checked every box, in part because he didn’t waste a shred of energy on his usual celebrations or crowd participation to keep up with Nadal. His undivided attention lasted 3 hours and 34 minutes.
“I couldn’t maintain a high level of tennis for a long time, I wasn’t moving fast enough and he was able to catch too many times early on,” Nadal said. “So I can’t push him back. Tennis is a positional sport a lot, isn’t it? If not, you need to be very, very fast and very young. And I’m not at that moment anymore.”
After trading the first two sets, Tiafoe broke Nadal to a 4-3 lead in the third, then immediately ran to his chair, looked straight ahead, and let the crowd applaud him – something he did to the crowd all day long The first game.
He won by two strokes, double-packed himself, and finished with an ace and a pair of conservative punches.
“The biggest thing about things like this is when I played against him before, I was broken so early in every set,” Tiafoe said. “I was like, if I can keep the serve, 1-all, 2-all, 3-all. Then you start feeling good, and then you play. You’re in the game.”
In Nadal’s character, the Spaniard took a 3-1 lead in the fourth set, trying to stop Thiafo’s momentum.
But in the next game, Nadal made two consecutive double faults, and Tiafoe did not let the opportunity slip through his fingers. He broke Nadal and then went from behind 15-40 to tie the game at 3-3.
After that, he completed three straight games.
“For a while, I was like, gosh. You’re going to see all these young guys get Rafa, Fed, Novak. Can I say I beat one of them? Today I’m like, no, I Do that,” Tiafoe said. “Now to tell the kids, grandkids, ‘Yeah, I beat Rafa.’ Hopefully I’ll never play him again. But hopefully I’ll end up winning.”
The victory made Tiafoe the second American to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open on Monday.
On the women’s side, No. 8 seed Jessica Pegula calmly eliminated two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-2 to enter her third Grand Slam eight of the year powerful.
Pegula’s parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, and there’s little suspense in the Tiafoe-Nadal game. Drama is not her style. In an era of women’s tennis defined by constant loss, Pegula has been a constant.
Pegula, plagued by injuries early in her career, made her breakthrough relatively late in life by winning her first WTA title at the 2019 Citi Open in Washington. She rose from No. 76 in the world at the end of the year to a career-high No. 7 this season. Partnering with Venus Williams’ former longtime coach, David Witt, devote more time to the professional aspects of professional tennis: eating right, preparing well, and taking care of your body.
Her tennis career is thriving. In singles, she has reached the quarterfinals of three majors this year, a 23-7 record at majors since the start of 2021.
When Pegula hits world No. 1, she will face her toughest challenge yet. 1 Iga Swiatek Wednesday. The game is likely to be played at Arthur Ashe Stadium – the atmosphere there seems to be terrible this year.