But on Monday he showed the discipline of a tactician with a smart 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal as he ousted the 22-time Grand Slam champion. He’s reached his first US Open quarterfinal – and second major quarterfinal of his career – thanks to a masterclass in energy management and taking his chances when they come.
When he won it by forcing a backhand error on Nadal, he threw his racquet on his chair and wrapped his hands around his head. The ones in his player box – including his father, who worked as a maintenance manager at the JTCC; his mother; and his favorite NBA player, Bradley Beal of the Wizards, jumped to their feet with their hands in the air.
“I felt like the world stopped,” said Tiafoe, who was greeted by LeBron James on Twitter. “I couldn’t hear anything for a minute. Even if I shake his hand, I don’t even know what I said to him. It was so blurry.”
Men’s tennis now has perhaps the widest open Grand Slam draw since Roger Federer’s reign began in 2003.
Should 33-year-old Marin Cilic defeat 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz on Monday night, he would be the only quarterfinalist to have won a Major title (US Open, 2014) and the only one over the age of 28.
Tiafoe’s win denied Nadal a chance to extend his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) in Grand Slam victories. He became the first man to beat Nadal at a Major that year, with the Spaniard having won the Australian Open and French Open. (Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon due to an abdominal injury ahead of a semi-final match with Nick Kyrgios.)
Nadal, who won the US Open when he last competed in 2019, came to Flushing Meadows after playing two games in the last 50 days. He had been training at a high intensity prior to the tournament but couldn’t serve with the same ferocity because scar tissue on his stomach restricted his movement.
Nadal’s lack of preparation was evident on Monday. He had nine double faults to nine aces while Tiafoe destroyed 18 aces to four double faults.
But even under less than ideal circumstances, the 36-year-old prevailed against three opponents in this tournament, including two ATP Tour veterans.
Tiafoe, 24, presented a far greater physical challenge.
Tiafoe is among the fastest players on the tour and has spent much of his time getting fitter since the pandemic began. His physical improvement has resulted in a steady increase through the rankings, where he hit a career high at No. 24 last month (he’s currently at No. 26).
But opponents must be of more than Olympic fitness to beat Nadal.
You must mentally outlast the most relentless competitor in tennis. They must be brave enough to make Nadal pay if he underperforms. And they must seize opportunities as they arise.
Tiafoe checked every box and in part kept up with Nadal, not wasting an iota of energy on his usual celebrations or crowd engagement. He stayed fully focused for 3 hours 34 minutes.
“I couldn’t keep a high level of tennis for a long time, I wasn’t quick enough in my movements and he could take the ball very early too many times,” said Nadal. “So I couldn’t push him back. Tennis is often a positional sport, right? If not, you must be very, very fast and very young. And I’m not in that moment anymore.”
After trading the opening two sets, Tiafoe broke Nadal to take a 4-3 lead in the third, then immediately ran to his chair, staring straight ahead and letting the crowd shower him with applause – one of his first games ahead the crowd all day .
He won the set with two shots down the line to give himself double set point, then finished with an ace and some conservative fist pumps.
“The biggest thing about things like that is the amount of time I’ve played him before. I broke so early in every set,” Tiafoe said. “I was like, if I can just hold serve, 1-all, 2-all, 3-all. Then you start to feel good, then you just play. You are in the game.”
In Nadal’s nature, the Spaniard snapped a 3-1 lead in the fourth set to stop Tiafoe’s momentum.
However, in the next game, Nadal served two double faults and Tiafoe didn’t let the chance slip. He broke Nadal and then came back from 15-40 to level the match 3-3.
After that he played three games in a row.
“For a while I thought, jeez. You see all these young guys get Rafa, Fed, Novak. Will I ever be able to say I defeated one of them? Today I was like, no, I’ll do that,” Tiafoe said. “Now it’s something to say to the children, to the grandchildren, ‘Yes, I beat Rafa.’ I hope I never play it again. But I hope to finish with a win.”
The win made Tiafoe the second American to reach a US Open quarterfinals on Monday.
Jessica Pegula, who was eighth in the women’s tournament, defeated the two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova 6:3, 6:2 and thus reached her third major quarter-final this year.
Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabers, offered little of the excitement that was present in the encounter between Tiafoe and Nadal. Drama is not her style; In an era of women’s tennis characterized by constant churn, Pegula has been a constant.
Plagued by injuries early in her career, Pegula broke through relatively late in life when she won her first WTA title at the Citi Open in Washington in 2019. She rose from 76th in the world at the end of the year to seventh this season on collaboration with David Witt, former longtime coach of Venus Williams, and more time on the professional side of professional tennis: proper nutrition, thorough preparation and personal hygiene.
Her tennis blossomed. In singles, she has reached quarterfinals in three Majors this year to have a 23-7 record in Grand Slams since early 2021.
Pegula will face her biggest challenge yet when she takes on world No. 1 Iga Swiatek on Wednesday. The game will likely take place at Arthur Ashe Stadium – where excitement seems to be in the air this year.