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American Frances Tiafoe’s long road to the US Open quarterfinals

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Frances Tiafoe celebrates after winning a point against Rafael Nadal during the fourth round of the US Open.
Frances Tiafoe celebrates after winning a point against Rafael Nadal during the fourth round of the US Open.
AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson

Rafael Nadal hit a backhand into the net under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night, ending his long streak of wins in tennis Grand Slams as American Frances Tiafoe emerged victorious. 

Tiafoe, the Maryland-born tennis pro, defeated the highest-ranked men’s player left in the tournament to advance to the US Open quarterfinals, and continued his long journey as the son of an immigrant custodian to the bright lights of New York. 

Heading into the tournament as the 22nd-ranked men’s player in the world, Tiafoe was a serious underdog against Nadal, who was searching for his 23rd Grand Slam title — but that didn’t deter the scrappy son of Sierra Leone parents, who fought back to win 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in Flushing. 

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

His parents came to the United States as immigrants fleeing the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and his father Constant eventually took up work as a custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. 

With few pennies to spare, the elder Tiafoe brought his kids to work with him, and brought them to the tennis center for recreation. 

Frances took a quick liking to the sport, and by the age of 5 showed significant promise on the court. 

His talent was quickly recognized by scouts across the 50 states, and he began competing in junior tournaments earlier than most of his peers. 

“It wasn’t anything supposed to be like this,” Tiafoe said of his upbringing. 

“I’m a son of immigrants, both parents grew up in Sierra Leone, born and raised in Sierra Leone. Came to the States early ’90s, late ’80s, around there. My dad, being a maintenance worker at a club, help building a club ’99. My mom being a nurse, working two jobs, working overtime through the nights.”

He became the youngest American male to advance to the US Open quarterfinals since Andy Roddick in 2006, as he beat the Spaniard beloved by millions of tennis fans around the globe. 

“It’s something to tell the kids, the grandkids,” Tiafoe said. “‘Yeah, I beat Rafa.’” 

Nadal, who exits the tournament after winning his previous 22 matches in Grand Slam competitions, having won the title at the Australian Open in January and the French Open in June, praised his American opponent, while lamenting his own play.

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

Tiafoe matches his best showing in major tournaments with his 2019 performance at the Australian Open, when he also reached the quarter finals. 

As the last American left in the men’s bracelet, he will now face off against Andrey Rublev of Russia, who entered the tournament as the 9th-ranked player in the world, on Wednesday for a possible trip to the US Open semifinals. 

Rublev previously beat seventh-ranked Cam Norrie 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 on Monday.

But either way, Tiafoe said he’s proud of his accomplishments thus far, and was happy to share the moment with his parents, who watched with pride as he toppled a tennis giant. 

“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.”

For more coverage of Frances Tiafoe and the US Open, head to amNY.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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