But Monday, with a smart, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal, he displayed a tactician’s discipline in ousting the 22-time Grand Slam champion. He is through to his first U.S. Open quarterfinal — and the second major quarterfinal of his career — thanks to a master class in energy management and taking one’s chances when they come.
When he clinched it by forcing a backhand error from Nadal, he chucked his racket toward his chair and placed his hands around his head. Those 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 — leaped to their feet, hands in the air.
“I felt like the world 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 such a blur.”
Men’s tennis now has what is perhaps the most wide-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 will be the only quarterfinalist to have won a major title (U.S. Open, 2014) and the only one older than 28.
Tiafoe’s victory denied Nadal the chance to expand his lead over Novak Djokovic (21) and Federer (20) in Grand Slam wins. He was the first man to beat Nadal at a major this year, with the Spaniard having won the Australian Open and the French Open. (Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon before a semifinal match with Nick Kyrgios because of an abdominal injury.)
Nadal, who won the U.S. Open the last time he contested it in 2019, arrived at Flushing Meadows having played two matches in the previous 50 days. He had been practicing with a high level of intensity ahead of the tournament but couldn’t serve with the same ferocity because scar tissue on his abdomen limited his movement.
Nadal’s lack of preparation showed Monday. He had nine double faults to nine aces, while Tiafoe crushed 18 aces to four double faults.
Yet even in less-than ideal circumstances, the 36-year-old powered through three opponents this tournament, including two ATP Tour veterans.
Tiafoe, 24, offered far more of a physical challenge.
Tiafoe is among the fastest players on tour and has dedicated much of his time since the start of the pandemic to getting fitter. His physical improvement has led to a steady rise through the rankings, where he reached a career-high No. 24 last month (he currently sits 26th).
But opponents need to possess more than Olympic fitness to beat Nadal.
They must mentally outlast the most unrelenting competitor in tennis. They must be brave enough to make Nadal pay when he is performing below average. And they must leap on opportunities when presented.
Tiafoe checked every box, keeping up with Nadal in part by not wasting one iota of energy with his usual celebrations or crowd engagement. He remained utterly focused for 3 hours 34 minutes.
“I was not able to hold a high level of tennis for a long time, I was not enough quick on my movements, and he was able to take the ball too many times very early,” Nadal said. “So I was not able to push him back. Tennis is a sport of position a lot of times, no? If not, you need to be very, very quick and very young. And I am not in that moment anymore.”
After trading the first two sets, Tiafoe broke Nadal to take a 4-3 lead in the third, then scampered immediately to his chair, staring straight ahead and letting the crowd shower him in applause — one of his first plays to the crowd all day.
He won the set with two shots down the line to give himself double set point, then closed with an ace and a conservative couple of fist pumps.
“The biggest thing with things like that is the time I played him before, I got broken so early in each set,” Tiafoe said. “I was like, if I can just hold serve, 1-all, 2-all, 3-all. Then you start feeling all right, then you just play. You’re in the match.”
In Nadal’s nature, the Spaniard raced out to a 3-1 lead in the fourth set in an attempt to stanch Tiafoe’s momentum.
But in the next game, Nadal served two double faults and Tiafoe didn’t let the chance slip through his fingers. He broke Nadal, then came back from 15-40 down to even the match at 3-3.
He cruised through three straight games after that.
“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,” Tiafoe said. “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 victory made Tiafoe the second American on Monday to reach a U.S. Open quarterfinal.
On the women’s side, eighth-seeded Jessica Pegula coolly dismissed two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-2, to make her third major quarterfinal this year.
Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, offered little of the suspense present in Tiafoe and Nadal’s matchup. Drama isn’t her style; in an era of women’s tennis defined by constant churn, 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 Washington’s Citi Open in 2019. She rose from 76th in the world at the end of that year to a career-high seventh this season after teaming up with David Witt, Venus Williams’s former longtime coach, and dedicating more time to the professional side of professional tennis: eating right, preparing thoroughly and taking care of her body.
Her tennis flourished. In singles, she has reached the quarterfinals in three majors this year to pad a 23-7 record at Grand Slams since the start of 2021.
Pegula will face her steepest challenge yet when she plays world No. 1 Iga Swiatek on Wednesday. The match will probably be at Arthur Ashe Stadium — where upsets seem to be in the air this year.