Rafael Nadal was upset by Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the US Open on Monday. The 4x US Open Champion fell to the American 4-6 6-4 4-6 3-6 in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was undoubtedly the biggest and most important win of Tiafoe’s young career.
The loss comes as a major disappointment for Nadal, his team, and his worldwide supporters. It was not who he lost to or how it happened, it was the opportunity to claim his record 23rd Grand Slam that seemed as wide open as any slam in recent memory. With the absence of Djokovic and Zverev, the departures of Medvedev and Tsitsipas, and the insanely in-form Kyrgios on the other side of the draw, this seemed like the best chance for Nadal to capture one last title in New York.
With that said, the loss of one player creates an opportunity for another. Tiafoe embraced this moment, played extremely well, and has set himself up with a great chance to reach his first career Grand Slam semifinal.
Rafael Nadal vs Frances Tiafoe
The first six games of the match were held by both players with relative ease. Nadal and Tiafoe seemed to be feeling each other out, like the first few rounds of a Heavyweight Title bout. At 3-3 in the first, Tiafoe created the first and only break-point of the set. The American ripped a backhand return up the middle of the court that forced the Spaniard into a forehand error. Tiafoe was able to hold his next two service games and take the first set 6-4 in 55-minutes.
After the first set, Nadal paired a medical timeout with his three minutes of allotted time to make a uniform change to take nearly ten minutes of off-court time. It seems as if he received tape on both of his wrists, but it begs the question of whether or not Nadal was trying to slow down the momentum of the 24-year-old American.
Regardless, the two men once again played steady service games throughout most of the next set. The first nine games of the second set were held without any break-point opportunities. Nadal had won 20/25 of his service points. Tiafoe, 16 of 19. However, like he so often does, Nadal buckled down at 5-4 with the American serving to stay in the set. On his second break and set point of the game, Tiafoe double-faulted.
6-4 4-6, 1 hour and 43 minutes in. At this point to everyone watching, it seemed as if this match was going the distance.
The third set started very similarly to the first two. Nadal and Tiafoe both held their first three service games of the set with ease. At 3-3 with the Spaniard serving, Tiafoe became very aggressive. He took advantage of his first and only break point of the match at 30-40 as Tiafoe ripped a clean backhand winner up the line. He held his final two service games of the set, dropping just three points along the way.
Up two sets to one, the American could taste the biggest victory of his life.
The first game of the fourth set was one of the most intense mini-battles of the match. Nadal staved off a break-point and ended the game with a backhand winner and a vintage Rafa roar. At 1-2 in the fourth, Nadal broke through the Tiafoe serve with help from three unforced errors from the American. During that break of serve, the roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium was slowly closing. The movement seemed to perturb the American which he vocalized to the chair umpire after the game. However, Tiafoe seemed to compartmentalize it quickly as he immediately grabbed the break back.
Tiafoe consolidated his break with a very nervy hold at 2-3. He held off two break points from the Spaniard with powerful first serves and an aggressive forehand approach. Tiafoe continued that aggression on the next Nadal service game, leading him to break the Spaniard’s serve in a game consisting of nine points. The American was two service holds away from the US Open quarterfinals.
Serving at 4-3, Tiafoe took a 40-love lead on Nadal. However, like a 22x Grand Slam Champion does, Nadal battled back to deuce. Tiafoe held his nerve, moved Nadal around the court, and consolidated his break with a blistering 134 MPH serve out wide to make it 5-3.
Tiafoe corralled his momentum to break Nadal one final time, taking the fourth set 6-3.
What’s Next for Tiafoe?
It is important for Tiafoe to give himself and his team the proper credit for this victory while also turning his attention to his quarterfinal match against Andrey Rublev. The last thing he wants to do is have a letdown after the biggest victory of his career.
Tiafoe and Rublev have had two previous meetings, splitting the encounters. The American overcame Rublev in a five-set thriller in the third round of last year’s US Open. Rublev got the best of Tiafoe in straight sets earlier this year at Indian Wells.
Not much separates these two as they are both on the hunt for their first career Grand Slam semifinal appearance. Both love to bully their opponent around the court with powerful groundstrokes. I expect the energy to be high from both guys who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Rublev, who bested Cameron Norrie in straight sets earlier on Monday, spent one hour and 26 minutes hours less time on the court than Tiafoe during their respective quarterfinal matches. Look for fatigue to play a possible factor in a match I expect to be very competitive.
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