Rafael Nadal has been a player to beat at Majors this year. The Spaniard conquered the Australian Open and Roland Garros in the same year for the third time in a career. Rafa withdrew ahead of the Wimbledon semi-final due to an abdominal injury and pursued the season's third Major crown at the US Open.
Rafa came to New York with a 19-0 score at Majors this year but also with an injury that prevented him from serving at his best. The Spaniard won three US Open matches to advance into the fourth round for the 12th time. Nadal toppled Rinky Hijikata, Fabio Fognini and Richard Gasquet and set the fourth-round clash against Frances Tiafoe.
Rafa played below his best and experienced a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 loss in three hours and 34 minutes to hit the exit door and suffer the season's first loss at Majors. Frances was the more aggressive player and hit 49 winners and 28 unforced errors.
The American played better in the decisive moments in front of the home crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium to reach his first US Open quarter-final. Nadal needed a medical timeout after the first set and could not force a decider despite having an early break in the fourth.
Tiafoe hit 18 aces and saved four out of six break points to keep the pressure on the other side. Rafa got broken five times from eight chances offered to Frances and hit the exit door before the quarter-final at the first Major since Wimbledon 2017.
Nadal said the rival played better than him, lamenting over the fourth set and admitting he could not use his chances. Tiafoe served at 44% in the opener and still faced no break points. He broke Rafa in the seventh game right after the return to building the advantage and placed a volley winner in game ten to claim the opener 6-4 in 54 minutes.
Nadal played well in the second set after that extended medical timeout and dropped five points in five service games. Rafa held after deuce in game nine and delivered his first break a few minutes later after Frances' double fault to wrap up the set and improve his chances after an hour and 45 minutes.
Rafael Nadal led 3-1 in fourth set against Frances Tiafoe before losing five games.
The returners claimed only 13 points in the third set, and Tiafoe held everything under control in his five service games. The American placed a backhand down the line winner in the seventh game to move in front and fired an ace at 5-4 to clinch the set and move closer to the finish line.
Ready to fight until the end, the Spaniard landed a forehand crosscourt winner in the fourth set's fourth game to create a 3-1 lead, hoping to keep it and force a decider. Frances pulled the break back in the next game before facing two more break points at 2-3.
The American took four straight points and sealed the game with an ace to level the score at 3-3 and gain a boost. Rafa netted a backhand in game seven to lose serve and find himself near the exit door. Tiafoe grabbed the eighth game with his 18th ace and rattled off the fifth consecutive game at 5-3 to emerge at the top and find himself in the last eight.
"I played badly, and Frances played well. I had to play better to reach the US Open quarter-final; it's simple. I had my chances after breaking him in the fourth set, which could have given me confidence and changed the momentum.
Still, unlike Frances, I could not perform today. He was a better player, and I congratulate him. Now it's time to go home and prepare mentally for my upcoming challenges. I will return when I feel ready," Rafael Nadal said.