Frances Tiafoe defeats Rafael Nadal to reach US Open quarterfinals – The Washington Post

Frances Tiafoe defeats Rafael Nadal to reach US Open quarterfinals - The Washington Post


NEW YORK — Frances Tiafoe metabolizes the energy of a crowd the way other players rely on protein bars.

Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who learned to play at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, is one of the game’s best junior shows. He has the talent and charisma to whip a crowd into a frenzy, the athleticism and shot-making to draw oohs and aahs. His performances in front of the raucous US Open crowd can feel more like martial arts matches than tennis matches.

But on Monday, with a smart, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal, he showed a tactician’s discipline to oust the 22-time Grand Slam champion. He’s through to his first US Open quarterfinal — and the second major quarterfinal of his career — thanks to a masterclass in energy management and risk taking when they come.

When he clinched it by forcing a hand error from Nadal, he threw his racket to his chair and put 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, Bradley Beal of the Wizards — jumped to his feet, hands in the air.

“I felt like the world stopped,” said Tiafoe, who got a shoutout 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 may be the most open Grand Slam draw since Roger Federer’s reign began in 2003.

If 33-year-old Marin Cilic beats 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz on Monday night, he will be the only quarter-finalist to win a major title (US 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 victories. He was the first man to beat Nadal at a major this year, with the Spaniard winning the Australian Open and the French Open. (Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon before a semifinal match with Nick Kyrgios due to an abdominal injury.)

Nadal, who won the US Open the last time he contested it in 2019, arrived at Flushing Meadows having played two matches in the previous 50 days. He practiced with a high level of intensity before the tournament but was unable to serve with the same ferocity because scar tissue on his abdomen limited his movement.

Nadal’s lack of preparation showed on 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 much more of a physical challenge.

Tiafoe is among the fastest players on tour and has devoted much of his time since the start of the pandemic to getting stronger. His physical improvement led to a constant rise through the rankings, where he reached a career-high No. 24 last month (he currently sits 26th).

But opponents must possess more than Olympic fitness to defeat Nadal.

They must mentally survive the most relentless competitor in tennis. They must be brave enough to pay Nadal when he performs below average. And they must jump on opportunities when they are presented.

Tiafoe checked every box, following Nadal in part by not wasting an iota of energy with his usual celebrations or crowd engagement. He remained completely focused for 3 hours 34 minutes.

“I couldn’t hold a high level of tennis for a long time, I wasn’t fast enough with my movements, and he was able to take the ball too many times very early,” said Nadal. “So I couldn’t push him back. Tennis is a sport of position a lot of times, right? If not, you must be very, very fast and very young. And I’m not in that moment anymore.”

After trading the first two sets, Tiafoe broke Nadal to take a 4-3 lead in the third, then escaped immediately to his chair, staring straight ahead and letting the crowd shower him in applause – one of his first games to the crowd all a 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 pair of fist pumps.

“The biggest thing with things like that is the time I’ve played him before, I’ve been broken so early in every set,” Tiafoe said. “I was like, if I can just hold serve, 1-all, 2-all, 3-all. Then you start feeling good, then you just play. You’re in the match.”

In typical Nadal fashion, the Spaniard raced out to a 3-1 lead in the fourth set in an attempt to stop Tiafoe’s momentum.

But in the next game, Nadal served two double faults and Tiafoe did not let the opportunity 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, yeah. You see all these young guys get Rafa, Fed, Novak. Will I ever be able to say I beat one of them? Today I was like, no, I’m going to do it,” Tiafoe said. “Now there is something to say to the children, the grandchildren, ‘Yes, I beat Rafa’. Hopefully I never play him again. But hopefully I’ll end up with a win.”

The win made Tiafoe the second American on Monday to reach the US Open quarterfinals.

On the women’s side, eighth seed Jessica Pegula coolly dispatched two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-2, to make her third major quarter-final this year.

Pegula, whose parents own Buffalo Bills of the NFL and Buffalo Sabers of NHL, offered little of the suspense present in the matchup of Tiafoe and Nadal. Drama is not her style; in an era of women’s tennis defined by constant decline, Pegula was constant.

Plagued by injuries early in her career, Pegula came through relatively late in life winning her first WTA title at the Citi Open in Washington 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, the former coach of Venus Williams, and devoting more time to the professional side of professional tennis: eating right, preparing herself and taking care of her body.

Her tennis flourished. In singles, she reached the quarterfinals in three majors this year to complete 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 likely be at Arthur Ashe Stadium – where upsets seem to be in the air this year.

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