Why Rafael Nadal Could Struggle Against Frances Tiafoe

Rafael Nadal Frances Tiafoe

Rafael Nadal takes on Frances Tiafoe in the Round of 16 at the 2022 US Open on Monday.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like it has the potential to be the match of the tournament. After all, Nadal has made it past the fourth round of the last 16 Majors he’s played (dating all the way back to Wimbledon 2017 when he lost to Gilles Müller).

It should be just another day at the office for the Spaniard–is what we’d say without giving Frances Tiafoe his due diligence. Here’s why this could be a very tough match for Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal vs Frances Tiafoe

The Tournament So Far

Both players have had different experiences at the US Open so far but Tiafoe’s US Open run has probably been the more encouraging of the two. He showed his mental chops against Diego Schwartzman.

  • Schwartzman served for the first set three times before it went to a tiebreak.
  • Tiafoe saved three set points in the tiebreak.
  • Tiafoe recovered from a break down in the final two sets.

Tiafoe has stubbornly refused to drop a set over the course of three tough matches with his win over Schwartzman taking the plaudits, a running backhand pass coming to mind in his first-set tiebreak with the Argentinian.

On the other hand, Nadal’s one-sided win over Richard Gasquet was all but a foregone conclusion given their lopsided head-to-head (now 18-0 to Nadal) and his other two matches were far from comfortable.

  • Nadal recovered from a set and a break down against Fabio Fognini after starting very slowly.
  • Looking very rusty, Nadal fed wild-card Rinky Hijikata short ball after short ball for a set in his first-round four-set win.

Surprisingly, Nadal has looked the more vulnerable of the two going into the fourth-round.

Match-Up

Tiafoe and Nadal have played twice… and twice Nadal has won.

That’s five sets played… five sets won for Nadal.

Both matches were played in 2019, one coming in fairly comfortable fashion on the orange dirt of Madrid and the other coming in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, undoubtedly the biggest match of Tiafoe’s career up to that point.

Tiafoe wasn’t ready to make the breakthrough then, not only mentally but in how his game technically matched up to Nadal’s. He wasn’t able to make a dent in the Spaniard’s armor mid-rally in that match in Australia, his desperate attempts to find the Nadal backhand met with venom.

Fast-forward to 2022 and Tiafoe is playing far more intelligent tennis. His backhand is steadier than it used to be making more picky about when to tee off on the forehand. He’ll be far less likely to play to the Nadal backhand so frequently and he should have the firepower and the patience on his forehand to hurt Nadal going into either side. This will be especially important if Nadal overspins the forehand from the get-go causing it to drop short should he be feeling nervous.

The only big worry is that Nadal looks to rush the Tiafoe forehand return under pressure. Tiafoe is yet to break Nadal in their two meetings so this aspect of the American’s game will be under particular scrutiny.

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Overdue A Big Win

Finally, Frances Tiafoe has been playing well even if his results haven’t shown it.

He’s lost eight times since the French Open and in seven of those eight losses, he’s won a set. He keeps coming so close against some of the game’s best players.

  • One particularly stinging loss to Nick Kyrgios in Washington comes to mind where five match points came and went.
  • Tiafoe’s loss to David Goffin at Wimbledon was lost 7-5 in the fifth set.
  • Tiafoe was a point away from taking a two sets to one lead against Felix Auger-Aliassime at this stage of last year’s tournament too.

It’s not a push to say he’s probably a whisker away from making a very significant run in the near future.

Nadal vs Tiafoe

There are many that will back the easy win for Nadal.

But really take those points into consideration…

  • Tiafoe has been playing great tennis and has been knocking on the door of a big result for the last few months.
  • Tiafoe has been the better of the two players at this tournament so far.
  • Tiafoe has the weaponry to hurt Nadal should he be feeling nervous and has shown he has the mental game to keep up with Nadal if things get tight.

This match has five sets written all over it. May the best man win!

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