Rafael Nadal lost to Francis 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 at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was undoubtedly the biggest and most significant win of Tiafoe’s youth career.
The loss comes as a huge disappointment to Nadal, his team and supporters around the world. It wasn’t who he lost to or how it happened, it was the chance to claim his record at a Grand Slam 23 that looked as wide open as any slam in recent memory. With Djokovic and Zverev out, Medvedev and Tsitsipas gone, and insanely bright Kyrgios on the other side of the draw, this looked like Nadal’s best chance of winning one last title in New York.
However, losing one player creates an opportunity for another player. Tiafoe embraced this moment, played very well, and prepared himself a great opportunity to reach his first Grand Slam semi-final.
Rafael Nadal vs. Francis Tiafoe
The two players played the first six matches of the match with relative ease. Nadal and Tiafoe seem to feel for each other, like the first few rounds of a heavyweight title match. In the first 3-3, Tiafoe established the first and only break point of the group. The American tore a backhand in the middle of the field, forcing the Spaniard to make a forward foul. Tiafoe was able to make 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 three minutes of his allotted time to make a change of outfit to take nearly ten minutes of time off the court. He appears to have received a tape on his wrists, but it begs the question of whether or not Nadal is trying to slow the 24-year-old’s American momentum.
Regardless, the two men again played fixed-service games for most of the next group. The first nine matches of Group B were played without any chances to break the pace. Nadal got 20/25 of his service points. Tiafoe, 16 of 19. However, as he often does, Nadal faltered at 5-4 with the American’s serve to stay in the group. On the second break and set point in the match, Tiafoe double-faulted.
6-4 and 4-6, 1 hour and 43 minutes. At this point, it looked as if this match was far away.
The third group started very similarly to the first and second group. Nadal and Tiafoe set up their first three group service matches with ease. In 3-3 with the Spaniard, Tiafo became very aggressive. He capitalized on his first and only break point in the match at 30-40 as Tiafoe rips a clean backhand into the line. He made his last two serve matches in the set, losing only three points along the way.
With two sets for one, the American can taste the biggest victory of his life.
The first match of the fourth set was one of the fiercest mini-fights in the match. Nadal managed to break a break point and finished the match with a backhand and Rafa’s roar. In the fourth game 1-2, Nadal broke Tiafoe’s serve with the help of three non-compulsory errors from the American. During that intermission, the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was slowly closing. The movement seemed to annoy the American, who pronounced the referee in the chair after the match. However, Tiafoe seemed to split it up quickly as he recovered the break instantly.
Tiafoe boosted his break with a hyper-tensioned fist in 2-3. He settled two points to break his serve from the Spaniard with a powerful forehand. Tiafoe continued this aggression into Nadal’s next match, which resulted in him breaking the Spaniard’s serve in a nine-point match. The American was two serves away from the US Open quarter-finals.
Tiafoe leads with a score of 4-3, giving Nadal 40 love. However, like the 22x Grand Slam champion, Nadal struggled to return to a tie. Holding his nerve, Tiafoe moved Nadal around the court, cementing a break with a blistering 134-mph serving wide to make it 5-3.
Tiafoe seized the momentum to break Nadal one last time, taking the fourth set 6-3.
What’s next for Tiafoe?
It’s important for Tiafoe to give himself and his team proper credit for this victory while also turning his attention to his quarter-final match against Andrey Rublev. The last thing he wants to do is be disappointed after the biggest victory of his career.
Tiafoe and Rublev had had two previous meetings, splitting the encounters. The American defeated Rublev in a thrilling five-set match 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.
There is not much separation between these two as they are both looking to make their semi-final debut at a Grand Slam. They both love to bully their opponent around the court with powerful ground kicks. I expect high energy from both players wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Rublev, who beat Cameron Norrie in straight sets earlier on Monday, spent an hour and 26 minutes an hour less on the field than Tiafoe during the quarter-final matches. Look for burnout to play a potential factor in a match I expect to be very competitive.
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