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Frances Tiafoe Takes Down Nadal to Blow Open the Men’s Bracket

The 24-year-old American beat Rafael Nadal in four sets on Monday for the biggest victory of his career, and the U.S. Open is anyone’s to win now.

Chris Almeida: All right. So, Rafa Nadal, the only member of the Big Three at this year's U.S. Open, is out. Frances Tiafoe, a brilliant Frances Tiafoe, knocked him off in four sets 6–4, 4–6, 6–4, 6–4. It was a really fun match. It wasn’t Nadal with his A game—it was maybe his B+ game—but this wasn’t a bad match from him. Tiafoe really went and took it. And now we're left with the most wide-open draw that we've seen at a major on the men's side in a long time. Last time a draw looked anything like this was in 2020 at the bubble U.S. Open when Novak Djokovic got ejected for hitting an umpire with a ball in the fourth round. Roger Federer and Nadal weren’t in the draw. So once Djokovic was out, it was kind of a pillow fight to see who was going to win it. Fortunately, I don't think this tournament is going to look like that one.

Jon Wertheim: It does have 2020 vibes with only one of the Big Three in the draw, and that member being eliminated in the middle weekend. But the circumstances are very different. I think this was more about Frances playing the match of his life. We know how talented Frances is. We know how he uses the crowd. We know how he can match anybody’s pace. But today he put it all together and really won the big points, which has been kind of the missing factor for him. So the headlines will be “Nadal Loses.” But I think we ought to devote considerable time and attention to the winner today.

Sept 5, 2022; Flushing, NY, USA; Frances Tiafoe of the USA, right, greets Rafael Nadal of Spain at the net after their match on day eight of the 2022 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Frances Tiafoe, right, sent Rafael Nadal home Monday in the most impressive victory of his career.

And apologies to Marin Cilic, but I think we will likely have a new U.S. Open champion. This wasn't like 2020. This wasn’t the favorite getting bounced for hitting a linesperson in the throat. This was a real win for the guy on the other side of the net.

CA: So, yes, to linger on the really impressive performance from Tiafoe today: the serve was huge and he got himself out of a lot of jams with it. A lot of flat balls in the high 130s painting the lines. There was a lot made of his improved fitness, and he didn’t visibly tire at all in a nearly four-hour match. But what really stuck out to me was how many times he hit that extra shot. We all know that Nadal gets to a lot of balls. And so when I’m watching his matches, often I’ll see him turn that sharp backhand on the run and start to look away, just assuming that he’s won the point. But today, Tiafoe was just ... there. He was in the right place all afternoon. And not only was he able to turn those shots back, but he would smack clean winners!

JW: Like with Ajla Tomljanovic, Tiafoe has a real history of failing to meet the moment. And players will tell you the mental effect from that accumulates. So for Frances to overcome that and not just have straight shotmaking that we always expect from him, but to have it at the right time, that’s huge. A month ago, he had a match point in D.C. against Nick Kyrgios and he couldn’t close. At Wimbledon, he had a match with David Goffin that went five sets that he couldn’t close. So for him to come through in the middle weekend at Arthur Ashe Stadium with Rafa Nadal on the other side of the net, that’s no small feat. This was the biggest match of his career.

CA: Tiafoe has made it to the fourth round of the last two editions of this tournament … and both times he lost. The furthest he’s ever made it at a major was the quarters in 2019 in Australia. But you didn’t really expect him to win that tournament.

There's been a lot of talk about Frances since he was a junior, but now he’s getting his first genuine opportunity. If we can look at the draw for a second: we've pretty much got all young players left. (Sorry, again, Marin Cilic.) And as far as late-round major experience goes, there's not a ton of it left. So this could be right there for the taking. Andrey Rublev is next, and he’s no pushover. And there's not really going to be any easy matches from here out, but I don't feel as bummed out imagining how the rest of the tournament is going to go as I did in 2020. Watching that final, my god, it was like seeing two people trying desperately to lose the match. I don't think I've ever been so bored watching a five-set final.

JW: It won’t be anything like that. We have Kyrgios. We have Carlos Alcaraz, who we are all convinced is a future star. With him, you have to be thinking: if not now, when? And in Tiafoe, we might have our first American men's major champion in 19 years. The 2020 comparison only goes so far. The women had their end-of-an-era moment 72 hours ago, and now here we are with six days of tennis left and none of the Big Three remaining. Maybe the men are having an end-of-an-era moment, too.

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