Frances Tiafoe is more than a good story

Just before the start of the US Open, after Frances Tiafoe won his first round match, he was asked if he felt this tournament represented an opportunity for him. After all, Novak Djokovic was absent, could not enter the country because he refused to get a COVID Vaccination; Roger Federer hasn’t played since Wimbledon last year. Andy Murray played, but on a metal hip. Rafael NadalNow in his 30s, he was recovering from an abdominal muscle injury, let alone a foot injury, that almost forced him to retire from the sport. Tiafoe agreed that there was no real favourite. “Honestly, everyone is on the same level,” Tiafoe said. “All of them can be beaten at the same time. Even the top guys.” He added, “I mean, I’m not there yet. You ask me, I’m still the dark horse that can do something special. I kind of like that I’m not on the front line because, you know, let these guys handle the pressure. I’m kind of Court 17, get some cheeky wins.” That was before Tiafoe defeated Nadal in the fourth round in front of an electrified crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, becoming the first American to do so at a Grand Slam since 2005 . Change can happen slowly, then all at once.

On Wednesday, Tiafoe faced each other in the quarterfinals Andrei Rublev, again in Arthur Ashe. This time the pressure was on him, not just his opponent. He seemed to like it. For the better part of two sets, Tiafoe and Rublev played almost evenly, ripping groundstrokes and trading service hold for hold. Tiafoe won the first set in the tiebreak. The second set went to someone else. Tiafoe had already played five tiebreaks in the tournament and won them all. He jammed Rublev with a serve down the middle on the first point, then backhanded him off the court at a daring angle to win the second. On the third, he stormed into the net and threw in a casual half-volley that Rublev could only push wide. Next, Tiafoe hit two aces at over 30 mph each. Then, on Rublev’s serve, he hit a looping return and followed it to the net, where he sliced ​​a drop volley. He put down Rublev’s next serve with a bouncing backhand return, took the tie break 7-0 and sprinted to his seat like he always does.

Not so long ago, Frances Tiafoe was known as one great story. The details were as irresistible as they were inspirational, the dreamy version of the American Dream. His parents were immigrants from Sierra Leone. He got into tennis while hanging out at a national tennis center where his father was a janitor; Tiafoe and his twin brother sometimes slept in one of the facility’s extra storage rooms. One Trainer, himself an immigrant, had noticed not only his aptitude for the game, but also its intensity and the worn quality of the Pokémon T-shirt he wore every day. When Tiafoe was eight, the coach bought him a new shirt and pair of shoes, and when he was nine he drove him to his first tennis tournament, which he won. Sponsored by the United States Tennis Association, Tiafoe has won prestigious junior tournaments in the UK, France and Los Angeles. The goal had been a college scholarship; Instead, when Tiafoe was nineteen, he pushed Roger Federer to five sets at the US Open.

Tiafoe is twenty-four now, no longer a child and no longer a fairy tale. Of course a person is never. The reality is something more interesting and maybe even more inspiring. “When I came on stage and the rankings flew up, everything was kind of good,” he said after the Rublev game. “I got a little complacent in 2019. It took me a long time to sort of pull myself together.” What changed, he said, was that he “started to really fall in love with the process and just try to get better. I think during that time the cameras weren’t on me, the attention wasn’t on me. I could just get better and do my own thing. I stopped trying to be the guy.”

He has become relentless. “Tennis is often a positional sport, isn’t it?” Nadal said after losing to Tiafoe. That’s how Tiafoe had hit him. He takes the ball early, quickly and boldly and isn’t afraid to push forward. He has soft hands around the web and, even better, a willingness to use them. He has netted one hundred and seventy times in this tournament and won more than seventy percent of those points. In three sets against Rublev, he netted forty-one times, winning thirty-two of those points. (Rublev came on 11 times and won four.) He’s unruly, quick, strong and charismatic, that’s the way the game works now.

Tiafoe is the first black American to reach the men’s semifinals at the US Open since 1972 when Arthur Ashe made it. When the tournament started, so was the story Serena Williams; Now it’s about who’s next, a group of players who combine aggressiveness with defensive pace and competitive intensity with entertainer instincts: Coco Gauff, Nick KygriosJannik Sinner, and Tiafoe’s next opponent, Carlo Alcaraz, who defeated Sinner at almost 3am on Thursday, the final end of a match played at the US Open. If Alcaraz wins the tournament he will be the new No. 1. Alcaraz is nineteen and although his quarter-final match has lasted more than five hours it is not yet clear if he will ever tire. But Tiafoe has a chance. He may or may not become the guy, but he’s already part of something. ♦

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