Frances Tiafoe apologized to the crowd, but he had nothing to apologize for.
He’d just lost a heartbreaking semi-final at the US Open, but he’d won the admiration of millions who had never paid much attention to him or bothered to watch him play tennis.
After a five-set loss to 19-year-old phenomenon Carlos Alcaraz after 4 hours and 19 minutes on Friday, Tiafoe vowed to win this tournament one day.
But maybe that’s beside the point.
If these last two weeks show who the 24-year-old American can be, the next decade of men’s tennis is going to be really, really fun.
It shouldn’t be even an ounce of shame that Tiafoe loses an Epic (6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3) to Alcaraz, who is the best teenage prospect since Rafael Nadal stepped in 2005 as an 18-year-old and won the French Open. Tiafoe fought, played with tremendous heart, came up with otherworldly shots and brought Alcaraz to the edge. It just wasn’t enough.
But the high quality of the game, the entertainment value of these two brilliant players pacing back and forth under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the charisma they both displayed made Friday’s semifinals a special event that both old and should also bring joy to new tennis fans a lot of hope for what the sport can be.
“Of course I would have liked to win tonight,” said Tiafoe. “But I think tennis won tonight.”
With all the worries about what it will be like when Roger Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic disappear for good, the beauty of the sport is that there is always someone else coming along and raising the bar of what is possible. If that’s what grand slam tennis looks like in the post-big-three era, the sport will be more than fine.
There is little doubt about Alcaraz, who will contest his first Grand Slam final on Sunday against the Norwegian Casper RuudShe will have many more of these moments. He is such an overwhelming talent, with an almost unparalleled package of strength, touch, fitness and nerve, that Grand Slam titles could very well come in bundles.
The question is whether this US Open was a moment for Tiafoe or the start of something big. Let’s hope it’s the latter because when Tiafoe is as sharp and dialed in as he was during this tournament, he makes the whole tour more interesting, relatable and a lot more fun.
This is a guy that brought NBA players like Bradley Beal to their first tennis match and inspired tweets from LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes. He took former first lady Michelle Obama to the semifinals. His story of picking up the game at a tennis facility where his immigrant father was a janitor is an inspiration and example of what is possible for American tennis when some of this country’s great athletes are given the opportunity to play the sport .
Those are all things tennis desperately needs as it moves away from a two-decade long era dominated by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in the men’s game and Serena Williams on the women’s side. Having an exciting black American man in the mix for big titles would be a tremendous boon to a sport that sometimes struggles to break through to the masses outside of the four Grand Slams.
But it’s up to Tiafoe to make that happen. And hopefully he can use this US Open run as an inspiration for greater achievements rather than a one off run that will be difficult to repeat in the future.
Honestly, it’s hard to say which path his career will take. As close as Tiafoe came to playing for a Grand Slam title, the reality is that he has never come close to such a result before. As Chris Fowler pointed out on ESPN, the biggest semifinal he had ever played in before Friday was last fall’s Vienna Erste Bank Open.
This is by no means an indictment of Tiafoe’s career. On Monday he is ranked 19th in the world, which is quite an amazing achievement in any context. But in basketball, football or baseball, being the 19th best player in the world makes tens of millions of dollars a year and earns worldwide fame and respect. In tennis you earn a nice living without much cultural reference.
It’s clear from the way he’s played at this US Open that Tiafoe is capable of more than he’s shown in his career, which previously featured just one Grand Slam quarterfinal (2019 Australian Open) and won an ATP title ( 2018 Delray Beach). Too often he was plagued by inconsistencies, poor concentration or an inability to finish games he should have been winning. But if Tiafoe can process what happened on Friday properly, a result like this should be aviation fuel for his career.
“I just proved that honestly, I mean obviously I can play with the best and I’m capable of winning Grand Slams,” he said. “I think everyone knew if I was playing my best I could do it. But you “I know how close I can come to being one of those guys and do it consistently. Obviously I’ve played well pretty sporadically throughout my career and veered off for a while. I’ve always been up against the best players in the world secured.” of the world. I’m doing it on a consistent basis and I’m starting to hit guys more willingly. Ready to take the next step.”
However, the next step does not necessarily have to be a Grand Slam title. Tennis is a sport that attracts the general public four times a year, but the real work is done on the tour week after week.
Tiafoe thus showed his high-end level is good enough to beat Nadal and almost good enough to be in the US Open final, but the key is building enough muscle memory so a run like this doesn’t seem like a Cinderella tale.
With Alcaraz surviving three consecutive five-set matches and Tiafoe advancing to his first Slam semifinal, this US Open felt like tennis was going mainstream outside of the Big Three for the first time. If he can capitalize on this remarkable run and continue to play at this high level, Tiafoe will have a huge role to play in keeping it that way.