NEW YORK – Francis Tiafoe ended Rafael Nadal’s 22-match streak by beating the 22-time major champion 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the fourth round of the US Open on Monday.
Tiafoe, the 22nd seed at Flushing Meadows, buried his head in his hands and cried on court after shaking hands with No. 2 seed Nadal. Nadal went and sat on a chair waving to the crowd and buried his head in a towel.
24-year-old Tiafoe He is the youngest American to reach the US Open quarterfinals since Andy Roddick in 2006. It is the second major quarterfinal of his career.
“I don’t know what to say right now. I’m beyond happy. I can’t believe it,” said Tiafoe, who will next face No. 9 seed Andrey Rublev. “He’s one of the greats. I played unbelievable tennis today, but I don’t even know what happened.”
Here’s what happened: Tiafoe served better than Nadal. Amazingly, he also bounced back better. And he stayed cool, stayed in the moment and didn’t let the odds or the opposition get to him. The 36-year-old Spaniard has won both their previous matches and all the matches he has played. He is 31-2 against the Americans entering Monday’s match and has won 27 since losing to James Blake in 2005.
“Well, the difference is simple: I played a bad match and he played a good match,” Nadal said. “In the end, that’s it.”
The surprise came a day after Nick Kyrgios, one of Tiafoe’s friends, eliminated No. 1 seed and defending champion Daniil Medvedev. That would make it the first US Open since 2000, when No. 1 Andre Agassi and No. 2 Gustavo Kuerton exited in the second round, that neither of the top two seeded men reached the quarterfinals.
This was before Nadal, 21 Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic and 20 winner Roger Federer began to dominate men’s tennis. Djokovic, 35, did not enter the US Open because he had not been 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 has not played since Wimbledon last year.
Now comes the inevitable question of whether their prime is coming to an end.
“This means that the years will continue,” said Nadal, “it’s the natural cycle of life.”
Either Tiafoe or Rublev will advance to the first major semifinal. Rublev, who is 0-5 in Slam quarterfinals, defeated No. 7 Cam Norre 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 on Monday.
Other men’s matches on Monday’s schedule: 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic vs. No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz, and No. 11 Jannik Sinner vs. Ilya Ivashka.
Cilic is now the last major champion left in the men’s draw. If he loses to heavily favored Alcaraz, it will be just the third time in the Open era (since 1968) that he has reached the quarterfinals of a men’s major, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
• 22-match streak in majors (2nd-longest in career) • 27-match winning streak against Americans in majors (first loss since 2005 US Open to James Blake) • 16 straight majors reaches quarterfinals or better (5th-longest men’s start since 1968 Open era)
It was also the second major since early 2005 when Federer, Djokovic and Nadal reached the quarterfinals. Another was the 2020 French Open — Federer and Nadal did not play, and Djokovic was eliminated in the round of 16 against Pablo Carreno Busta.
Nadal won the Australian Open in January and the French Open in June. He then reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in July before withdrawing from that tournament due to a torn abdominal muscle. This loss does not go into the books, because it came out before the match.
Nadal only competed once in the 1½ months between his withdrawal from the All England club and his return to New York recovering from injury. His play was not up to standard at the US Open, where he won four times.
He adjusted his service movement by throwing the ball lower than usual so as not to put too much pressure on the center. There were plenty of signs Monday that his serve wasn’t at its peak: nine double faults, first serve percentage around 50%, five breaks by Tiafoe.
There were signs of trouble for Nadal earlier in the tournament. He lost the first set in his first round match. In the second round, he accidentally cut the bridge of his nose and turned his head when the edge of the racket came off the court and caught his face.
In the fourth round on Monday, the next-to-last break came in the fourth set for a 4-3 edge, when Nadal stepped back into the net, and Tiafoe jumped back to the side for the next change, raising his fist. Fifteen minutes later Tiafoe broke again and it was over.
When Nadal’s last backhand found the net, Tiafoe put his hands to his head. He buried his face in a towel as he sat down in his side chair.
“When I first came into the scene, a lot of people had limitations on what I was doing … ‘I wasn’t mentally ready for that.’ “I wasn’t an ‘adult,'” Tiafoe said.
But these days, “I can just be me and do it my way and enjoy the game I love.”
It represents Tiafone’s latest significant move, his only trip to a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2019 Australian Open — and one that ended in a loss to Nadal.
Tiafoe thanked the tall people in the stands, including his parents — who immigrated from Sierra Leone in West Africa and whose father worked as a maintenance man at a tennis facility near the US capital — his girlfriend and Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal.
“To have them see what I did today means more than anything,” Tiafoe said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.