NEW YORK — If Frances Tiafoe wasn’t bowed by a heartbreaking, five-set loss in the fourth round at Wimbledon this summer, perhaps it’s because he had a sense of what was coming.
This, on the heels of reaching a career-high No. 24 in the world last month (though he currently sits 26th).
This, which makes him the first American man to make the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for three straight years since Mardy Fish from 2010 to 2012.
This, which he did with IMG Tennis super agent Jill Smoller sitting in his player box, having represented Tiafoe since April. Smoller is best known as Serena Williams’s longtime agent, and her presence indicates that some people in the know believe Tiafoe could be destined for great things.
Count Tiafoe as one of them.
The 24-year-old said he is unconcerned with the milestone that awaits him next: making his first career U.S. Open quarterfinal. He has been to a major quarterfinal before, after all, in Australia in 2019. Setting his sights there would feel a little low.
“I want to go further, right? Yeah, I mean, third year running, fourth round, could be worse things, right?” Tiafoe said. “That’s pretty good.”
Going further would require pulling out the biggest win of his year. Next up for Tiafoe is Rafael Nadal, who defeated Richard Gasquet, 6-0, 6-1, 7-5, on Saturday after rebounding from a relatively shaky third-round match against Fabio Fognini. The 22-time Grand Slam champion, who is still recovering from an abdominal injury that forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon, started uncharacteristically slow against Fognini. He also came away bloodied after accidentally hitting himself in the nose with his racket.
Nadal has yet to lose a match at a major this year, though he considers his withdrawal ahead of a semifinal against Nick Kyrgios at the All England Club worse than defeat.
“The sport is about winning or losing, not about retiring. When you retire, you can’t compete,” Nadal said. “The feeling is much worse than losing a match, no?”
Tiafoe lost to Nadal both times they played. The Spaniard bounced him from that 2019 quarterfinal match at the Australian Open in straight sets and defeated him later that year in Madrid on clay.
But Tiafoe counts himself a wholly different player from 2019, with improved maturity and consistency in addition to three years’ worth of on-court improvement.
“Now I believe I can beat him,” Tiafoe said, before Nadal finished beating Gasquet. “If I end up playing him, I’m definitely going to come after him.”
All that progression from three years ago was evident Saturday when Tiafoe battled Schwartzman, even if he still brought the typical Tiafoe flavor.
The first set was a 73-minute carnival of long rallies and can-you-believe-that shots in which Tiafoe fell quickly to 2-5, then fended off five set points, including three in the tiebreaker. A happy crowd on Grandstand was thrilled with that, even with a strong number of Schwartzman supporters among it.
“Unbelievable how I even won the set,” Tiafoe said.
Tiafoe then did what any good showman will do after priming his audience. He turned up his energy.
He came out in the second set by jumping on Schwartzman’s serve and finally took control by earning a break point at 4-4, at which point the Argentine settled in where’s he’s most at home: on the baseline.
Tiafoe converted the break point with a 22-shot rally that brought down the house (actor Ben Stiller included), but he wasn’t done yet. After exaggeratedly dragging his feet over to a gaggle of dudes sitting courtside, he slapped them five, sat on the divider, then tossed his hands up and fell into the crowd with drama.
It was a wonder he stood up again — the point made him 20-7 in rallies of nine shots or more.
Closing out the final two sets was straightforward after that. Tiafoe’s tired legs carried him to a double break point at 4-4 again in the third, which he converted by rushing to net. In the final game he coaxed two backhand errors from Schwartzman and sealed the matter with back-to-back aces, the second clocking 134 mph.
Riding the positive momentum of a crazy first set was good practice for Tiafoe. His biggest challenge against Nadal, even bigger than containing his forehand, will be maintaining intensity throughout the match.
“I’m just going to have to be really aggressive and try to make him play to me, not me play to him,” Tiafoe said.