Tiafoe ends Nadal’s Grand Slam match win streak at U.S. Open

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Frances Tiafoe’s vision was blurry from the tears. He was thrilled – overwhelmed, even – when the last point was over and it hit him that, yes, he had ended Rafael Nadal’s 22-match Grand Slam winning streak and reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the first time.

“I felt like the world stopped,” Tiafoe said. “I couldn’t hear anything for a minute.”

Then Tiafoe found himself “losing it in the locker room” when he saw that NBA superstar LeBron James gave him a Twitter shoutout.

“Bro,” Tiafoe said, “I was going crazy.”

What meant the most to Tiafoe about his 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over 22-time major champion Nadal in the fourth round at Flushing Meadows, though, was looking up in his Arthur Ashe Stadium guest box and knowing his parents, Constant and Alphina, were there.

“To see them experience me beat Rafa Nadal – they’ve seen me have big wins, but to beat those `Mount Rushmore’ guys? For them, I can’t imagine what was going through their heads,” said Tiafoe, a 24-year-old American seeded 22nd at the U.S. Open. “I mean, they’re going to remember today for the rest of their lives.”

His parents both emigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone in West Africa amid its civil war in the 1990s. They ended up in Maryland, where Constant helped construct a tennis training center for juniors, then became a maintenance man there; Alphina, Frances said, was “a nurse, working two jobs, working overtime through the nights.” Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, were born in 1998, and soon would be spending hour upon hour where Dad’s job was, rackets in hand.

Maybe one day, went the dream, a college scholarship would come of it.

“It wasn’t anything supposed to be like this,” Tiafoe said evening, hours after by far his biggest victory.

He is the youngest American man to get this far at the U.S. Open since Andy Roddick in 2006, but this was not a case of a one-sided crowd backing one of its own. Nadal is about as popular as it gets in tennis and heard plenty of support as the volume raised after the retractable roof was shut in the fourth set.

“It’s something to tell the kids, the grandkids: `Yeah, I beat Rafa,”‘ Tiafoe said with a big smile.

He served better than No. 2 seed Nadal. More surprisingly, he returned better, too. And he kept his cool, remained in the moment and never let the stakes or the opponent get to him. Nadal, a 36-year-old from Spain, had won both of their previous matches, and every set they played, too.

“Well, the difference is easy: I played a bad match and he played a good match,” Nadal said. “At the end that’s it.”

This surprise came a day after Tiafoe followed along on TV as his pal Nick Kyrgios “put on a show” and eliminated No. 1 seed and defending champion Daniil Medvedev. That makes this the first U.S. Open without either of the top two seeded men reaching the quarterfinals since 2000, when No. 1 Andre Agassi exited in the second round and No. 2 Gustavo Kuerten in the first.

That was before Nadal, Novak Djokovic, who has 21 Grand Slam titles, and Roger Federer, who has 20, began dominating men’s tennis. Djokovic, 35, did not enter this U.S. Open because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 and was not allowed to enter the United States; Federer, 41, has undergone a series of operations on his right knee and last played at Wimbledon last year.

Now come the inevitable questions about whether their era of excellence is wrapping up.

“It signifies that the years go by,” Nadal said. “It’s the circle of life.”

Tiafoe now meets No. 9 Andrey Rublev, who beat No. 7 Cam Norrie 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 earlier.

Carlos Alcaraz beat No. 15 seed Marin Cilic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in a match that lasted 3 hours, 54 minutes and ended at 2:23 a.m.

No. 11 Jannik Sinner rallied from two games down in the fifth set to beat Ilya Ivashka 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

The No. 1 woman, Iga Swiatek, moved into her first quarterfinal at Flushing Meadows by coming back to beat Jule Neiemeier 2-6, 6-4, 6-0.

“I’m just proud,” Swiatek said, “that I didn’t lose hope.”

The 21-year-old from Poland will face another first-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist: No. 8 Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American woman, who advanced with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova.

Another women’s quarterfinal will be two-time major finalist Karolina Pliskova against No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka.

Nadal won the Australian Open in January and the French Open in June. Then he made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon in July before withdrawing from that tournament because of a torn abdominal muscle.

Nadal competed only once in the 1 1/2 months between leaving the All England Club and arriving in New York, where he has won four trophies.

He tweaked his service motion, tossing the ball lower than he normally does so as not to put as much strain on his midsection. There were plenty of signs that his serve was not in tip-top shape: nine double-faults, a first-serve percentage hovering around 50%, five breaks by Tiafoe.

Earlier in the tournament, he lost the first set of his first-round match. Did the same in the second round, when he also accidentally cut the bridge of his nose and made himself dizzy when the edge of his racket frame bounced off the court and caught him in the face.

Nadal appeared on the verge of turning things around when he broke early in the fourth set and went ahead 3-1.

Tiafoe told himself: “Stay in it. Stay with him.”

That’s tied to two key areas Tiafoe credits with helping make him a stronger player of late: an improved in-match mindset and a commitment to fitness.

“Rafa is there every point. I’ve been known to have some dips in my game at times, where it’s like you’re watching (and thinking), `What’s that?!”‘ Tiafoe said. “That was my thing, match intensity.”

No concern now: He grabbed the last five games. The next-to-last break came for a 4-3 edge in the fourth set, when Nadal put a backhand into the net, and Tiafoe skipped backward toward the sideline for the ensuing changeover, his fist raised.

Fifteen minutes later, Tiafoe broke again, and it was over. This represents the latest significant step forward for Tiafoe, whose only previous trip to a Grand Slam quarterfinal came at the 2019 Australian Open – and ended with a loss to Nadal.

When one last backhand by Nadal found the net, Tiafoe chucked his racket and put his hands on his head. He glanced into the stands – Mom, Dad, brother, girlfriend, Washington Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal, others – then sat in his sideline chair and buried his face in a towel.

“It was just wild. My heart is going a thousand miles an hour. I was so excited. I was like: Let me sit down,” Tiafoe said. “Yeah, I’ve never felt something like that in my life, honestly.”

Nakashima takes first ATP Tour title at San Diego

San Diego Open - Finals
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SAN DIEGO – Brandon Nakashima earned his first ATP Tour victory in his hometown, beating friend and fellow Southern Californian Marcos Giron 6-4, 6-4 in the San Diego Open final.

“It’s super-special, something you dream of, but to have it happen in my hometown with all my friends and family here, it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said Nakashima, who had two previous finals appearances. “I hope there are many more moments like this to come.”

Nakashima, a 21-year-old who grew up in San Diego and trained extensively at the event’s site as a junior, clinched the opening set in only 30 minutes. The second set, filled with lengthy rallies, took nearly an hour.

Giron, the No. 5 seed and former NCAA title winner from UCLA, wasn’t able to fend off Nakashima’s persistent ground strokes and well-placed serves. Nakashima had eight aces, six in the first set.

Serving at 5-4 in the second set, Nakashima tallied the match’s deciding two points when Giron pushed an easy volley into the net, followed by Nakashima’s second-serve ace.

He earned $93,090, about half of what received for reaching the third round of the U.S. Open in early September.

Nakashima, who was ranked No. 69 on the ATP Tour, moved up to 48, his highest ranking in nearly three years on tour. Despite the loss, Giron moved up to 53 from 58.

Not only was the singles title claimed by an American, the doubles title also taken by an American duo as the second-seeded pair of Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow defeated Australians Jason Kubler and Luke Saville 7-6 (5), 6-2.

The $612,00 event was held at Barnes Tennis Center, which next hosts the $757,900 WTA 500 San Diego Open, Oct. 8-16. That will feature 16 of the world’s top-ranked 20 women pros, led by No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Frances Tiafoe lifts Team World to 1st Laver Cup win

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LONDON — The last to arrive, befitting his reputation in the locker room, Frances Tiafoe strutted into the post-match news conference after clinching Team World’s Laver Cup victory over Roger Federer’s star-studded Team Europe and shouted, “Champs are here!”

Then the 24-year-old from Maryland joined his teammates at the table where the silver trophy was resting Sunday night, put down a bottle of water, pulled a Budweiser out of his red jacket and smiled that wide smile of his.

Performing with the same infectious showmanship and crunch-time success he displayed en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open earlier this month, Tiafoe staved off four match points and came back to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8, giving Team World its first triumph in five editions of an event founded by Federer’s management company.

“I don’t like losing,” said Federer, a 20-time major champion whose final match before retirement was a loss alongside Rafael Nadal in doubles against Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night. “It’s not fun. It just leaves not the best taste.”

When Tsitsipas put a forehand into the net to end Sunday’s contest – and the three-day competition – Tiafoe dropped his racket and fell to his back on the court, where teammates piled atop him. After getting on his feet, Tiafoe cupped a hand to his ear, asking spectators for more noise, then pointed to his chest and yelled, “I’m him! I’m him!”

“When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it,” Tiafoe said. “I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Using the nickname other players gave Tiafoe to reflect the way he embraces big moments, Team World captain John McEnroe said: “Frances is `Prime Time.’ He loves this stuff.”

McEnroe had been 0-4 while leading his squad against his former playing rival, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg; both indicated they would be back for the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver, but that might be their last go-round.

This one served as a celebration of Federer and the 41-year-old Swiss star’s career.

Tiafoe responded with a quip when asked whether he might owe Federer some form of “I’m sorry” for beating him in his finale or for defeating his team, which also included Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for a total of 66 major singles titles. That, incidentally, is 66 more than Team World, a collection of 20-somethings (Sock turned 30 on Saturday).

“”I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” said Tiafoe, who went 0-3 against Federer in singles head-to-head. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Team Europe entered Sunday at O2 Arena with an 8-4 lead; the first team to 13 points would win.

Each match on Day 3 was worth three points, and Team World went ahead thanks to a pair of victories by Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada. He beat Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), after partnering with Sock to edge Murray and Matteo Berrettini 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 in doubles.

Tiafoe then made it 13-8, but it wasn’t easy.

He went a tournament-record 8-0 in tiebreakers at Flushing Meadows this month and was just as resilient Sunday.

“It’s been a long time that Frances has been playing the big guys close and losing a lot of close battles. It’s great to see lately he’s been winning,” said Taylor Fritz, an American who is the same age as Tiafoe and has known him for years. “It’s about time that he steps up and the matches go the other way. Today was a joke.”

That’s because Tiafoe was a single point from losing to Tsitsipas four times in their second-set tiebreaker, but somehow got through that. Then, at 4-all in the concluding match tiebreaker – first to 10, win by two – Tiafoe sprinted from behind the baseline to near the net and barely got to a drop shot by Tsitsipas, somehow lunging to flick an angled winner.

While most of the 16,365 fans went wild, Tiafoe went around the net and stood still, hands on his hips, relishing the atmosphere.

“We put him in the slot that he was in today for a reason,” said Team World’s Tommy Paul, another 24-year-old American, “and he stepped up for us, big time.”