But Monday, with a smart 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal, he showed the discipline of a tactician by ousting the 22-time Grand Slam champion. He’s made it to his first US Open quarterfinal — and the second major quarterfinal of his career — thanks to a masterclass in energy management and taking his chances when they arise.
When he took it by forcing a backhand foul from Nadal, he threw his racket to his seat and put 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, the Wizards’ Bradley Beal – jumped to his feet, hands in the air.
“I felt like the world stopped,” said Tiafoe, who got a shout out from LeBron James on Twitter. “I didn’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 vague.”
Men’s tennis now has arguably the most open Grand Slam draw since Roger Federer’s reign began in 2003.
Should 33-year-old Marin Cilic beat 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 28.
Tiafoe’s win robbed Nadal of the opportunity to extend his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) in Grand Slam wins. 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 for a semi-final match with Nick Kyrgios due to an abdominal injury.)
Nadal, who won the US Open the last time he contested it in 2019, arrived at Flushing Meadows after playing two games in the past 50 days. He had practiced at a high intensity prior to the tournament, but was unable to serve with the same fierceness because scar tissue on his abdomen restricted his range of motion.
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.
But even in less than ideal conditions, the 36-year-old managed to beat three opponents in this tournament, including two ATP Tour veterans.
Tiafoe, 24, presented much more of a physical challenge.
Tiafoe is one of the fastest players on tour and has spent much of his time getting fitter since the start of the pandemic. His physical improvement has led to a steady rise through the rankings, where he hit a career high of No. 24 last month (he is currently 26th).
But opponents need more than Olympic fitness to beat Nadal.
They must mentally survive the most ruthless competitor in tennis. They must be brave enough to make Nadal pay if he underperforms. And they have to seize opportunities when they are presented.
Tiafoe checked every box and kept up with Nadal, in part by not wasting an ounce of energy on his usual celebrations or audience involvement. He remained completely focused for 3 hours and 34 minutes.
“I wasn’t able to maintain a high level of tennis for a long time, I wasn’t fast enough in my movements and he was able to grab the ball too many times very early,” said Nadal. “So I couldn’t push him back. Tennis is often a sport of position, isn’t it? If not, you have to be very, very fast and very young. And I’m not in that moment anymore.”
After swapping the first two sets, Tiafoe Nadal snapped to take a 4-3 lead in the third, then immediately ran to his seat, stared straight ahead, and had the crowd shower him in applause – one of his first plays for the public all day .
He won the set with two shots down the line to give himself a double set point, before finishing with an ace and some conservative fist pumps.
“The most important thing with that kind of thing is the time I played him before, I got 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 just play. You’re in the game.”
In the nature of Nadal, the Spaniard raced to a 3-1 lead in the fourth set in a bid to stifle Tiafoe’s momentum.
But in the next game, Nadal served two double faults and Tiafoe didn’t let the opportunity slip through his fingers. He broke Nadal and then came back from 15-40 to tie the game at 3-3.
He then went through three consecutive races.
“For a while I was like, gosh. You see all these young guys getting Rafa, Fed, Novak. Will I ever be able to say I beat one of them? Today I was like, no, I’m going to do that,” Tiafoe said. “Now it’s something to tell the children, the grandchildren: ‘Yes, I beat Rafa.’ Hopefully I never play him again, but I hope I end with a win.”
The win made Tiafoe the second American to reach a quarterfinals of the US Open on Monday.
In the women’s eighth place, Jessica Pegula sent two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova coolly away, 6-3, 6-2, to reach her third major quarterfinal this year.
Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabers, offered little of the tension present in Tiafoe and Nadal’s matchup. Drama is not her style; in an era of women’s tennis characterized by constant turnover, Pegula has been a constant.
Plagued by injuries early in her career, Pegula broke through relatively late in life by winning her first WTA title at the 2019 Citi Open in Washington, teaming up with David Witt, the former Venus Williams coach, and spend more time on the professional side of professional tennis: eating right, preparing thoroughly, and taking care of her body.
Her tennis blossomed. In singles, she reached the quarterfinals in three majors this year to set a 23-7 record at Grand Slams since early 2021.
Pegula will face her biggest challenge yet when she plays world No. 1 Iga Swiatek on Wednesday. The match is likely to take place at Arthur Ashe Stadium – where there appear to be disturbances in the air this year.