Frances Tiafoe’s gritty run at the Australian Open came to a halt Tuesday at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, where 17-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal ousted the 21-year-old Hyattsville native in straight sets to advance to the tournament’s semifinals.
Nadal, 32, had yet to drop a set through his four previous matches in the season’s first major. He kept that record intact against the unseeded Tiafoe, steamrolling to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory that took just 1:47 to complete.
It was Tiafoe’s first time in a Grand Slam quarterfinal, as well as his first career meeting with the hard-hitting Nadal. And it served as a telling benchmark — for how far Tiafoe has come in the past year, and how far he has yet to go to join the ranks of the game’s elite.
Tiafoe exceeded all expectations to reach the quarterfinals. And he’ll climb to a career-high ranking inside the world’s top 30 after his impressive run in the season’s first major.
After clearing the first round, he toppled three higher-ranked players in grueling matches that tested his focus and fitness. Having reached the tournament’s final eight, however, Tiafoe faced the challenge of not only Nadal, one of the sport’s fiercer competitors, but a Nadal in exceptional form.
With an eye toward shortening rallies, Nadal has improved his serve, and it has been a huge weapon throughout the tournament — his first since last fall’s U.S. Open. He was ruthless in his efficiency against Tiafoe, bombarding him with a display of power and versatility, never losing focus and never relenting. All of those are lessons Tiafoe can take from the experience.
Tiafoe, who turned 21 on Sunday, had a tougher slog to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, spending roughly three hours more on court than Nadal to reach the quarterfinals. His journey included two four-set matches and the first five-set victory of his career.
But it wasn’t fatigue that led to Tiafoe’s defeat Tuesday.
Nadal, the far more seasoned player, dominated him in every facet of the game, while Tiafoe’s frustration grew. He sprayed backhands long, netted forehands and chided himself over mistakes. Those are all aspects of his game that Tiafoe can work on. His passion for the game is not in question, nor is his desire for greatness. And he has built himself into a tremendous athlete — quick and powerful, at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds.
Tuesday’s quarterfinal was the featured night match at Rod Laver Arena, the featured court in Melbourne, which is 16 hours ahead of East Coast time.
There was no indication the stage was too big for Tiafoe; he loves big moments and bright spotlights. In an interview the day before, he proclaimed himself confident, “loving life” and, on court, seeing things unfold remarkably slowly.
But he wasn’t prepared for the trickiness, variety or spin of Nadal’s serve, which alternately yanked him wide, jammed him up and careened beyond his reach. The Spaniard, who had lost his serve just twice in his previous 54 games, bolted to a 3-0 lead. And he closed the opening set in just 30 minutes, claiming the final point on a forehand blast that wrong-footed Tiafoe, who struggled for consistency throughout the match.
While it was not the result Tiafoe sought, he established himself as a fast-rising player to watch this season and in the years to come.
His progression has been impressive since turning pro in 2015.
After learning the game at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, Tiafoe turned pro in 2015 and moved into the top 100 for first time the following year. In 2017, he notched his first victory over a top-10-player and pushed Roger Federer to five sets in a loss at the U.S. Open. In 2018, he won first ATP tournament in Delray Beach, Fla.
With the victory, Nadal advances to the semifinals, where he’ll face Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, the 20-year-old who vanquished Federer, the six-time and defending champion, earlier in the tournament.
Asked on court about the challenge that young players such as Tiafoe and Tsitsipas represent to tour veterans, Nadal said: “They can wait little bit. [But] looks that they don’t want to wait. They are there — Frances here in quarterfinal; Stefanos in semifinals.”