Rafael Nadal clearly wasn’t himself in his fourth round match against Frances Tiafoe. The abdominal injury that had him withdrawing in the semifinals of Wimbledon once again reared its ugly head, and, considering that he managed to see action only once more heading into the United States Open, it was, perhaps, no surprise. And, in the context of his diminished fitness, it was likewise fitting that the final point that forced him out of the last Grand Slam event of the year came off a netted backhand.
That said, it’s also not wrong for all and sundry to consider the outcome a shock. Nadal’s frailties notwithstanding, he was not expected to bow out at Flushing Meadows on the first day of the back end of the fortnight. He had beaten Tiafoe easily in the two other times they met, and it was no stretch to consider him a heavy favorite in their set-to anew. Unfortunately, the confluence of circumstances gave the lie to the prognosis; an extremely partisan overflow crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium combined with his limited mobility to enable the upset.
In the aftermath, Tiafoe celebrated as if he had already won the major championship. He had cause to rejoice, of course; he’s the first American since Andy Roddick 16 years ago to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open, and the fact that he beat the player with two Grand Slam titles this year alone and 22 all told served only to sweeten the achievement. “I played unbelievable tennis today,” he noted in his post-mortem, and he’s right. He served up 135-miles-per-hour howitzers en route to 18 aces, and finished with 49 winners as opposed to just 28 unforced errors.
True, Nadal would have been a much tougher out at full strength. On the other hand, there can be no discounting Tiafoe’s accomplishment. Opportunities abound in tennis, but there’s a reason the Big Three of tennis, of which the Spaniard is part, has reigned for much of the millennium. And if he’s advancing to the Round of Eight, it’s because he made the most of his chances and proved true to potential. “I’m beyond happy,” he said. “I can’t believe it.” Actually, he did, and it’s why he prevailed.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.