NEW YORK – Frances Tiafoe’s vision was blurred with tears. He was thrilled – even overwhelmed – when the last point was over and he realized he had ended Rafael Nadal’s 22-match Grand Slam winning streak on Monday and reached the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time.
“I felt like the world stood still,” Tiafoe said. “I couldn’t hear anything for a minute.”
Then Tiafoe realized he “lost his composure in the dressing room” upon seeing this NBA superstar LeBron James gave him a Twitter shoutout.
“Bro,” Tiafoe said, “I’ve been going insane.”
However, what meant most to Tiafoe in his 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over 22-time major champion Nadal in the fourth round at Flushing Meadows was the look up in his guest at the Arthur Ashe Stadium Box and knew his parents, Constant and Alphina, were there.
“To see them witness me beating Rafa Nadal – they’ve seen me win big, but beating those ‘Mount Rushmore’ guys? -year-old American finished 22nd at the US Open. “I mean, they will remember this day for the rest of their lives.”
His parents both immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone in West Africa in the 1990s amid the civil war. They ended up in Maryland, where Constant helped build a junior tennis training center and then became a maintenance man there. Alphina, Frances said, was “a nurse who worked two jobs and worked overtime at night”. Frances and his twin brother Franklin were born in 1998 and would soon be spending hour after hour where Dad’s job was, bat in hand.
Maybe one day, according to the dream, a college scholarship would come of it.
“It shouldn’t be like that,” Tiafoe said Monday night, hours after his biggest win by far.
He’s the youngest American to make it that far at the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2006, but this wasn’t a case of a one-sided crowd backing one of their own. Nadal is as popular in tennis as it gets and heard plenty of support when the volume was turned up after the retractable roof closed in the fourth set.
“It’s something to say to the kids, to the grandkids, ‘Yes, I beat Rafa,'” Tiafoe said with a big smile.
He served better than Nadal, number 2. Surprisingly, he hit back better too. And he kept calm, stayed in the moment and didn’t let the stakes or the opponent get to him. Nadal, a 36-year-old Spaniard, had won both of their previous games and every set they played.
“Well, the difference is simple: I played a bad match and he played a good match,” Nadal said. “In the end that was it.”
That surprise came a day after Tiafoe watched on TV as his pal Nick Kyrgios “put on a show” and eliminated No. 1 seeded champion Daniil Medvedev. This marks the first US Open since 2000, when No. 1 Andre Agassi was eliminated in the second round and No. 2 Gustavo Kuerten in the first round, without either top-seeded man progressing to the quarterfinals.
That was before Nadal, Novak Djokovic, who has 21 Grand Slam titles, and Roger Federer, who has 20, began dominating men’s tennis. The 35-year-old Djokovic did not participate in this US Open because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was not allowed to enter the United States. Federer, 41, has undergone a series of surgeries on his right knee and last played at Wimbledon last year.
Now come the inevitable questions as to whether their era of excellence is coming to an end.
“It means the years are passing,” Nadal said. “It’s the cycle of life.”
Tiafoe now meets No. 9 Andrey Rublev, who defeated No. 7 Cam Norrie 6-4 6-4 6-4 the previous Monday.
Other men’s matches on Monday’s schedule: 2014 US Open winner Marin Cilic vs. No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz and No. 11 Jannik Sinner vs. Ilya Ivashka.
Women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek advanced to her first quarterfinal at Flushing Meadows by coming back to beat Jule Neiemeier 2-6 6-4 6-0.
“I’m just proud,” said Swiatek, “that I haven’t given up hope.”
The 21-year-old Pole meets another first-time US Open quarterfinalist: Jessica Pegula, number 8, the highest-ranked American who prevailed in a 6-3, 6-2 win over two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.
Another women’s quarterfinal will see two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova take on No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka.
Nadal won the Australian Open in January and the French Open in June. He then reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in July before withdrawing from that tournament due to a torn abdominal muscle.
Nadal only competed once in the 1 1/2 months between leaving the All England Club and arriving in New York where he has won four trophies.
He optimized his serve movement and threw the ball lower than usual to not stress his midsection as much. There were many signs on Monday that his serve wasn’t at its best: nine double faults, a first serve share of around 50%, five breaks by Tiafoe.
At the start of the tournament, he lost the first set of his first-round match. Did the same in the second round when he also accidentally cut the bridge of his nose and felt dizzy when the edge of his racquet frame bounced off the court and hit him in the face.
Still, Nadal seemed on the verge of turning things around one Monday when he broke early in the fourth set to take a 3-1 lead.
Tiafoe said to herself, “Hold on. stay with him.”
That ties into two key areas Tiafoe has credited for making him a stronger player of late: an improved in-game mindset and a commitment to fitness.
“Rafa is there in every point. I’ve been known to sometimes have some dips in my game where it’s like you’re watching (and thinking, ‘What is this?!'” Tiafoe said. “That was my thing, match intensity.”
Don’t worry now: he snagged the last five games. The penultimate break came for a 4-3 edge in set number four when Nadal netted a backhand and Tiafoe vaulted backwards to the touchline for the ensuing fist-raised substitution.
Fifteen minutes later, Tiafoe broke again and it was over. It’s the latest significant step forward for Tiafoe, whose only previous trip to a Grand Slam quarterfinal came at the 2019 Australian Open – and ended in a loss to Nadal.
When a final backhand from Nadal found the net, Tiafoe threw away his racquet and put his hands on his head. He glanced at his guest box in the stands — mom, dad, brother, girlfriend, Washington Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal, others — then sat in his sideline chair and buried his face in a towel.
“It was just wild. My heart is beating a thousand miles an hour. I was so excited. I was like, let me sit down,” Tiafoe said. “Yeah, I’ve never felt anything like this in my life, honestly.”