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Rafael Nadal takes a moment during his match against Frances Tiafoe during the fourth round of the U.S. Open in New York on Sept. 5.GABRIELA BHASKAR/The New York Times News Service

Right at the end of his U.S. Open fourth-round match, when it became clear that he was going to win, Francis Tiafoe began to strut around the backcourt with his chest puffed out.

Who could blame him? The American had just killed a giant.

Tiafoe, 24, has one of the great origin stories in the sport. His father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, worked as a custodian at a Maryland tennis complex he’d helped build. The job came with a room. Tiafoe was literally raised in tennis.

Advancing to the quarter-finals for the first time at his home Grand Slam would have been a coming out no matter who’d he’d beaten. But managing it against Rafael Nadal is something else. Tiafoe won 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

“The times, they are a’changin’,” John McEnroe said as the match ended, which is getting a little too far ahead of itself. The times may have changed this week. Nothing suggests the times have changed, full stop. The tennis times are the same because Nadal continues to define them.

For 20 years, the story of men’s tennis has been a Sesame Street counting exercise. First, we had the Big Two (though they weren’t called that). Then the Big Three, and the Big Four and back down to the Big Three.

People still talk about the Big Three, but it’s really the Big Two again. Does anybody seriously believe Roger Federer is coming back? He hasn’t played a match in 14 months. When you’re 40, no sports injury that takes that long to heal is ever going to be really healed.

With Federer flirting with unofficial retirement, we’re left with Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Because of his vaccination status, Djokovic could be limited to the European-based majors for the foreseeable future.

So from the many, we are left with one. But what a one.

What struck you most after the big upset wasn’t Tiafoe’s delight, but Nadal’s clear frustration. You expected the former, but the latter was a small surprise.

Nadal wasn’t rude about it. He embraced Tiafoe, but he wasn’t interested in a long chat.

After shoving his gear in a bag, the four-time winner of the U.S. Open stomped off the court without taking a curtain call. You could see a thought balloon forming over his head as he left – ‘Should’ve been five.’

He was on the march at Wimbledon before an injury knocked him out. Had he beaten Tiafoe, there was no Djokovic to stop him here. Nadal has won a ton of these things, but you could feel him seething that he’d lost this one.

“We can make lamentations or we can complain now about a lot of things, but I don’t think that is going to change any situation, no?” Nadal said.

Totally. No one listens to my lamentations either.

Beyond the obvious, the reason people love Nadal is his mildness. On the court, he can be combustible. Off it, he speaks in a courtly Spanglish that summons images of a chat at a seaside villa. No other athlete is as relaxing to listen to.

He was his usual reflective self on Monday night, but with an edge. He was determined not to help the narrative. People wanted him to say he’d been outclassed by Tiafoe. He’d only concede he’d been outplayed. Having heard so often that it’s getting near time for him to go, Nadal was not getting near any ‘losing my powers’ talk.

“Of course, it’s important to recognize all the good things that the opponent is doing or the opponent did,” Nadal said. “But at the end of the day, I need to analyze myself more than my opponent, no?”

All-time-great to normal-person translation: If I played him 10 more times, I’d beat him at least eight.

No one has heard more like-sands-through-the-hourglass talk than Nadal, because he’s been injured so often. He’s been on his way out for a decade.

Tiafoe was the latest person (gently) pushing a revised version of it: “I don’t think we’ll see a Big Three. It will be like a Big 12.”

Elsewhere: “It’s cool to see a new era.”

I get that everyone these days thinks they can manifest their own reality, but the facts don’t yet bear this particular manifestation out.

Tiafoe mentioned a bunch of players in this Big 12 – Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Carlos Alcaraz, himself. These all happen to be guys who’ve made the quarter-finals here.

Only one of them made it that far (and no further) in Australia this year, where Nadal won.

None of them made it that far at the French, which Nadal also won.

Nadal’s loss on Monday was the first by a Big Three member at a Grand Slam this year.

So if the Big 12 means guys who make a few bucks at Grand Slams, then there’s always been a Big 12. But the Big Three – with Federer as a non-participating, emeritus member – is still the one winning majors.

You had to dig a bit, but this was the clear line in Nadal’s explanation of what happened. That nothing’s changed, and even the best have a bad day.

“Tennis is always a balance,” Nadal said. “When somebody’s not playing that well, it’s easier that the opponent plays better. So if my ball is a not a high-quality ball, then he’s able to do this game much easier. That’s the thing.”

Coming from most people, this is sour grapes. Coming from someone who’s won 22 Slams, including one as recently as three months ago, it’s a reality check (combined with just a little bit of sour grapes).

It’s not hard to get – we live at a time when change is a high virtue. People want things to shift seismically – either back to the way they were before, or to some entirely new way. They want new sorts of politics, social arrangements, cultural touchstones.

People would like tennis to change as well. But until Rafael Nadal loses at a major and isn’t furious with himself about it, it probably won’t.