American Frances Tiafoe achieved a stunning upset at the U.S. Open on Monday by defeating second seed Rafa Nadal in a thrilling match. Tiafoe, seeded 22nd, claimed victory with a score of 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, marking the first time this year that Nadal has been defeated in a major tournament.
Following his victory, Tiafoe couldn’t contain his happiness, covering his face with his hands as he basked in the cheers from the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium. He broke Nadal for the fifth time, securing what is arguably the biggest surprise of the competition.
Tiafoe, speaking in an on-court interview, expressed his disbelief and overwhelming joy, saying, “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m beyond happy, I’m almost in tears. I can’t believe it. He is definitely one of the greatest of all time. I played unbelievable tennis today but I really don’t know what happened.”
While Tiafoe’s performance was exceptional, Nadal’s serving and returning were uncharacteristically weak, allowing Tiafoe to capitalize on his mistakes. Nadal committed nine double faults and hit only 33 winners compared to Tiafoe’s 48.
With this win, Tiafoe halted Nadal’s streak of reaching the quarter-finals or better in 17 consecutive majors. Nadal had previously won the Australian and French Opens this year before withdrawing due to an abdominal injury during Wimbledon.
Despite the suffocating humidity in New York, Nadal made no excuses for his performance, telling reporters, “I can find excuses but for me it’s simple: when you don’t play at the level that you should… you can’t win.”
Tiafoe’s upbringing and journey to success also deserve recognition. Born in Maryland to parents from Sierra Leone, he discovered tennis while his father worked as a custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in suburban Washington DC. After the match, Tiafoe sported a hoodie decorated with all 23 of Serena Williams’ Grand Slam victories, paying tribute to the tennis legend who likely played her final match at the tournament last week.
Reflecting on his progress, Tiafoe acknowledged the low expectations many had for him when he first entered the scene, stating, “But these last couple years I’ve been able to develop and I have a great team behind me. I’ve been putting my head down, and I’m happy with where I am in life.”
Although Tiafoe had never won a set against Nadal in their previous encounters, he showed no fear from the beginning. Breaking for a 4-3 lead in the first set, he claimed the set with an easy volley. Nadal managed to even the score by winning the second set through a narrow margin, but Tiafoe continued to excite the crowd with a break point and a backhand winner in the third set.
Nadal momentarily showed signs of a comeback in the fourth set, taking a 3-1 lead after Tiafoe was broken in a game where he complained about the noise of the roof closing for rain on the massive Ashe stadium. However, Tiafoe quickly regained his composure and broke Nadal’s serve twice in the final game to secure his unlikely victory, as Nadal hit a backhand into the net.