Rafael Nadal’s curious US Open exit brings intriguing quarter-final line-up
This time, the reason for the men’s side of the US Open being blown apart was not quite as dramatic. Two years on from Novak Djokovic’s sudden disqualification for accidentally striking a line judge with a ball hit in anger, Rafael Nadal’s fourth-round defeat to Frances Tiafoe will have a similar impact on the draw and already guarantees there will be a first-time grand slam champion in New York by the end of the week.
Unlike Djokovic’s infamous moment of frustration, it was possible to see Nadal’s defeat coming, even if it still required an immense performance from Tiafoe to end the Spaniard’s run at the grand slams. After winning the Australian Open and French Open, and then pulling out of his Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios, a streak of 22 wins in the majors and one of the most remarkable of grand slam seasons is over.
If Nadal’s victories in Melbourne and Paris were defined by sensational comebacks and a refusal to submit, to his opponent as well as a creaking body and looming threat of retirement, his defeat in Flushing Meadows lacked the fire to quell what was an inspired display from Tiafoe. Nadal’s own performance was error-strewn and forgiving. Unlike at Wimbledon, when Nadal pounced upon the first signs of doubt from Taylor Fritz in his quarter-final comeback, Tiafoe was the player encouraged to attack.
It was in Nadal’s victory over Fritz in which the 36-year-old suffered the tear to his abdominal muscle, the injury that disrupted his tournament preparations. Nadal was only able to play one match leading into the US Open and although he played down its impact, his level throughout the first week had been curiously low. Nadal could not explain why, but his serve was particularly vulnerable. Against Tiafoe, he only made 53 per cent of his first serves and while the second was hit with more pace in an attempt to compensate, it coughed up nine double faults.
Physically, there was not necessarily anything else to explain why Nadal appeared to be so tame. Afterwards, however, there were hints of what had been going on beneath the surface. “Mental issues,” Nadal suggested, when explaining his form upon arriving in New York. “A lot of things happened in the last couple of months.” Nadal’s wife is expecting their first child and there have reportedly been complications with the pregnancy.
Nadal could not say when his next match would be but it is clear where his priorities will be over the coming weeks. Regardless, when the story of 2022 is written, it will go down as Nadal’s year.
The closing chapter is still to be completed, though, and once again the US Open has delivered by providing tennis with a new grand slam winner. Ahead of the men’s quarter-finals, only three of the eight players have reached a grand slam final. Two of them, Kyrgios and Matteo Berrettini, were beaten by Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. The other, Casper Ruud, was thrashed by Nadal at the French. On the other side of the draw, one of Tiafoe, Andrey Rublev, Carlos Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner will play in their first major final.
There was always the feeling that this could be the most open men’s grand slam in years, but the opportunity still had to be seized. Tiafoe claimed the biggest win of his career by bringing an aggressive approach and the measured levels of disrespect required to dethrone a 22-time grand slam. The American was bold and resilient, and his fearless play on the forehand side was rewarded as he gradually got his home Arthur Ashe crowd, who started out supporting Nadal, to turn and get behind him.
Tiafoe’s story is an incredible one. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, his father was a janitor at a state-of-the-art tennis centre in Maryland, where Tiafoe lived in a converted spare office and learned to play the game. This, after a junior career of much promise and hype, is his breakthrough.
The significance of Tiafoe forcing his way into the tournament mix by reaching his first US Open quarter-final in the same year his inspiration, Serena Williams, bowed out from tennis, cannot be understated either. The 24-year-old wore a Serena hoodie onto Arthur Ashe and with Coco Gauff also making strides in the women’s draw by reaching the last eight of her home slam for the first time, an opening week defined by Williams will be influenced by her as well.
“She’s the reason why I think I can do what I do,” Tiafoe said afterwards. “When I was younger, the reason I said to my Dad I could be a professional tennis player was seeing Serena and Venus battling each other. Two people who look like me, and I can go and do that, it’s unbelievable.”