The next generation of top American players has struggled heavily against Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in Grand Slams. Tiafoe broke through by winning, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
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It happens at just about every Grand Slam. One of the American men of the so-called next generation begins to look dangerous, raising hopes for a breakthrough.
Then one of those familiar foes who have hogged the biggest trophies in the sport dashes the dream.
Lately the Americans have been getting closer, which has made the failures more difficult to swallow. Taylor Fritz said he wanted to cry on his chair beside the court when he lost to Rafael Nadal in a fifth-set tiebreaker in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this summer.
No one has to dream anymore.
Frances Tiafoe emerged on Monday at the U.S. Open in a way that went beyond the other top Americans of his generation, beating Nadal in four sets to knock one of the sport’s so-called Big Three — who also include Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer — out of a Grand Slam tournament.
Tiafoe beat Nadal, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, with an intense, joyous effort on an electric afternoon at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He grabbed his head and crouched to his knees when Nadal hit the final backhand into the net.
“I don’t even know what happened,” Tiafoe said, moments later. “Unbelievable day.”
22 Frances Tiafoe
2 Rafael Nadal
The victory represented the next step for the American men, who have not won a Grand Slam singles title in 19 years. Tiafoe and his fellow 20-somethings have become solid members of the top 30 this year, but have yet to crack the next level.
For Tiafoe, a strong and talented 24-year-old from Hyattsville, Md., who is one of the fastest players in the game and built like an N.F.L. defensive back, the win was the biggest of his career. It came in his home-country slam in a stadium packed to the rafters with the sound bellowing off the roof after nearly every point, with raucous cheers for both an American underdog and a beloved champion.
Tennis for Tiafoe, who is the child of immigrants from Sierra Leone, was simply a means to gain a scholarship to college. Then it became far more that.
Tiafoe rode the crowd for all it was worth, pumping his fists and asking for more noise on his best shots. After a key winner gave him a decisive break of Nadal’s serve in the third set, he sprinted to his chair, revving up the crowd even more and letting the roars fall over him.
The loss for Nadal, who was seeded second, came less than 24 hours after Daniil Medvedev, the top seed and defending champion, lost to Nick Kyrgios. It blew the men’s tournament wide open and nearly guaranteed that there will be a first-time Grand Slam champion for the third consecutive year.
Tiafoe said ahead of the match that he needed to somehow equal Nadal’s intensity from the first point to the last, and that is exactly what he did. He stumbled briefly in the fourth set, when he was forced to serve as the roof was closing because of a rainy forecast. Noticeably shaken, he complained to the chair umpire, missed an easy volley and got sloppy with his groundstrokes, letting Nadal break him.
But he quickly came back to break Nadal’s serve in the next game, and then began hammering away and scampering across the court to chase down every ball he could reach and many he couldn’t. A serve that regularly hits 130 miles per hour on the radar gun was plenty helpful, too. A 134-m.p.h. rocket brought him to within one game of the finish line.
He also took advantage of the fact that Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, was not playing at his best.
Nadal is still finding his form at the end of a strange, injury-plagued year that somehow could still end up being one of his best.
He could barely walk on his chronically injured left foot six weeks before the Australian Open and thought he might have to retire. Then he started to feel better, played one tournament before the year’s first Grand Slam, and then won it, coming back from two sets down in the final against Medvedev, the world No. 1.
He cracked a rib ahead of the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and then the pain in his foot returned just a few weeks before the French Open. He received injections to numb his foot before each match and still won his 14th French Open title. He also left Paris on crutches.
Playing on the Wimbledon grass for the first time in three years, he got better with each match and appeared destined for a showdown in the finals against Djokovic. But he tore an abdominal muscle during his match against Fritz. He withdrew from the tournament the next day.
Rehabilitation from that injury took longer than expected. Nadal arrived in New York having played just one hardcourt match, which he lost to Borna Coric of Croatia in Ohio. In Queens, Rinky Hijikata, a wild-card entrant from Australia ranked 198th in the world, took the first set off him in the first round. Nadal struggled to find the court for much of the first two sets of his second-round match against Fabio Fognini of Italy.
On Monday against Tiafoe, Nadal had to consult with a physiotherapist after the first set. He double-faulted at key moments and could not produce the torque that has always been so essential for his power but also makes him prone to injuries.
After the match, Nadal was philosophical as always, saying that complaining about his spate of injuries or wondering what might have been had he not gotten hurt, or if possible distractions had not developed — his wife, who is pregnant, was hospitalized while he was in New York — would not change the outcome. After all, sometimes he has been terribly hurt and somehow managed to come out on top — just not this time.
“We can’t find excuses,” he said. He continued: “I have been practicing well the week before, honestly. But then when the competition started, my level went down. That’s the truth. For some reason, I don’t know, mental issues in terms of a lot of things happened the last couple of months. Doesn’t matter. At the end the only thing that happened is we went to the fourth round of the U.S. Open and I faced a player that was better than me. And that’s why I am having a plane back home.”
Tiafoe is headed back to a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time since the Australian Open in 2019, the last time he played Nadal — and lost — in a Grand Slam.
That performance, when he was 21, announced him as a potential force. Suddenly people in the game started looking to him as a savior for American men’s tennis, which has struggled for several years to find its next big star.
Tiafoe has said it was all a bit too much too soon, and it happened before he really understood the dedication and commitment required to climb to the highest echelon of the sport.
After shooting into the top 30 he slumped. He has steadily climbed the world rankings since the middle of last year. He also made the final 16 at the U.S. Open in 2020 and 2021, and did so at Wimbledon this year. Coming into Monday’s match, he had won all nine sets in New York this year, and had been especially tough in the crucial moments, winning four tiebreakers. But he was battling Nadal and history at the same time.
Tiafoe had been winless in six tries against Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, though he had given Djokovic all he could handle in four tight, physical sets at the Australian Open last year.
He spoke of being more mentally prepared to take on Nadal than he had been three years ago.
“I’m not going to have that ‘first time playing him, excited to play,’” he said of Nadal after his third-round win against Diego Schwartzman, the 14th seed, eight spots higher than him. “Now I believe I can beat him.”
Tiafoe is part of a promising and talented group of American players that also includes Fritz, Tommy Paul and Reilly Opelka. They essentially grew up together at junior tournaments and training at the United States Tennis Association centers in Florida.
They were born within 12 months of each other in 1997 and 1998 and have been jockeying with and supporting one another since they were 14 years old. Tiafoe has always been the alpha of the group, always looking to rib his mates, especially Fritz.
Fritz was once the worst of the foursome but he has had the most success and is the highest ranked. He got the groups’s first win against the Big Three earlier this year, when he overcame an ankle injury during his warm-up and beat Nadal in the final in Indian Wells.
Martin Blackman, who as director of player development for the U.S.T.A. has watched Tiafoe and the others in his age group and played a role in the federation’s investment in them, said on Sunday he was confident Tiafoe could break through that Grand Slam barrier against Nadal.
“It takes 100 percent focus and intensity from start to finish,” Blackman said.
That is exactly what Tiafoe delivered.