Frances Tiafoe took an enormous step towards fulfilling his great potential as he pulled off by far the biggest win of his career, upsetting the second seed Rafael Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to reach the US Open quarter-finals for the first time.
In front of a rowdy home crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the 22nd seed became the first man to beat Nadal on court in a grand slam this year. It also marks the first time since Wimbledon 2017 that Nadal has lost before the quarter-final stage of a grand slam.
After Nadal’s final backhand struck the net, Tiafoe was in disbelief as he tried to reckon with the significance of his achievement. “I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m beyond happy, I’m almost in tears,” said Tiafoe during his on-court interview.
In his press conference on Monday night, Tiafoe recounted those emotions. “I was telling my agent, I felt like the world stopped. I couldn’t hear anything for a minute. Even shaking [Nadal’s] hand, I don’t even know what I said to him. It was such a blur. I was already tearing. I could barely see him and my team.”
As he contested his third straight fourth-round appearance at the US Open, and having reached the fourth round of Wimbledon earlier this summer, Tiafoe arrived inside the biggest tennis stadium in the world full of confidence in his ability to pull off a big win.
He served brilliantly from the beginning while pairing nerveless attacking tennis with all his typical variety and flair. Even after Nadal levelled the match at one set all and then looked to pounce as Tiafoe showed nerves late in the third set, Nadal kept pressuring him. He refused to falter.
Tiafoe served out the second set with two audacious down-the-line forehand winners followed by an unreturned serve. After trailing 3-1 in the fourth set, Tiafoe rolled through five games in a row, slamming down an ace after a tense, tight service game for 4-3 and then playing the return game of his life to snatch the win without hesitation.
“My legs were like cement,” said Tiafoe of the lengthy 4-3 game. “I was like, ‘Just get out of the game, get out of the game’, and I did.” He will face Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals after the No 9 seed defeated Britain’s Cameron Norrie in straight sets earlier on Monday.
Tiafoe is the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants and he was drawn into tennis after his father was janitor at a tennis club in Washington. Hype has followed him since he was a teenager but he has had to be patient in adulthood, watching as his contemporaries rise up 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 get Rafa, Fed, Novak. Am I ever going to be able to say I beat one of them?’ Today I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do that.’ So now, it’s something to tell the kids, the grandkids, ‘Yeah, I beat Rafa.’ Hopefully I never play him again, but hope I end with a win.”
The NBA star LeBron James, Tiafoe’s idol, was among those to pay tribute to Tiafoe’s display on Twitter. “CONGRATS Young King!!! You earned it!” James tweeted alongside a video of the match-winning moment.
“I was losing it in the locker room,” said Tiafoe, laughing. “I was going crazy. “That’s my guy. So to see him post that, I was like, ‘Do I retweet it as soon as he sent it?’ I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to be cool and act like I didn’t see it and then retweet it three hours later.’”
As he digested a bitter end to a great, complicated year, Nadal brushed off questions about his preparation and the abdominal injury that meant he only played in one tournament before the US Open. He said that he had been practising well before the tournament and, for reasons he couldn’t quite put a finger on, his level dropped as soon as the tournament began.
“It’s normal that 15 minutes after a loss in the final slam of the season to feel like everything is dark, everything seems difficult to have the positive energy to look ahead,” said Nadal, speaking in Spanish. “But days will pass and I’ll keep going as I’ve done my whole life and I’m confident I have the inner strength to do it again.”
Nadal will head back home to Mallorca, where his wife, Mery, is pregnant with their first child. His next scheduled tournament is Laver Cup on September, but his next appearance will depend on his wife’s pregnancy and when he intends to resume on the tour.
“It’s been a few months a little difficult in every way, this is the reality. And from there, I will start again professionally and, on a personal level, finish with something that is important in my life, which is having my first child. I trust that everything will turn out well,” said Nadal.
For Tiafoe, everything has changed. Before the event, Tiafoe said that he was happy to fly under the radar after years of attention and pressure in his youth. “Now that’s over, man,” he said, smiling. “I was thinking about that. Now that’s over. There’s no dark horse any more.”