Can Frances Tiafoe end the drought and be the first American in a US Open final since 2006?
Frances Tiafoe was not among the favourites going into the US Open but after beating Rafael Nadal he is now one game away from a first Grand Slam final.
Frances Tiafoe stands on the cusp of history at the US Open, but the task weighs lightly on the 24-year-old American. Tiafoe has always possessed the talent to go deep at a major, reaching the Australian Open quarters in 2019, but when he took on 22-times Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal in a rematch of that encounter in the fourth round at Flushing Meadows something clicked. Nadal entered the tournament carrying an abdominal problem and rarely looked comfortable on court, his ever-adjusting serve failing to fire as he sought to protect his injury. But then Nadal is rarely 100% fit and yet few players are able to take advantage when the Spaniard’s armour shows even the slightest sign of rust. Tiafoe did just that, seeing off his opponent in four sets to reach the quarters and then beating ninth seed Andrey Rublev to make the semis, where he will face Carlos Alcaraz as he bids to become the first American male to reach the US Open final since Andy Roddick in 2006.
Tiafoe’s story is an unusual one in tennis. The son of Sierra Leonean immigrants, he first picked up a racket at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where his father was the on-site caretaker, hitting with his twin brother, Franklin. When he was 15, Tiafoe won the Orange Bowl and joined the ATP Tour as a professional a year later in 2015 at the Citi Open after a run to the junior US Open semis. But despite his athleticism and ball-striking ability, there would be no instant breakthrough for Tiafoe, who broke into the top 50 in 2018 and the top 30 in 2019. Consistency has always been an issue for Tiafoe, whose all-or-nothing style of play can work wonders when everything falls into place. He holds an 8-26 record against top-10 players and beat four top-10s last year but his career win-loss record stands at 123-137. His one ATP title came at Delray Beach in 2018, but as he told reporters after beating Nadal: “Watching Serena and Venus play finals of Grand Slams at that time, when I was super young. I was like, how cool would it be to play Wimbledon, to play on Arthur Ashe and stuff like that. I just had a big passion for the game. Not even mainly for me, but to do it for my parents.”
Tiafoe has nothing to lose against Alcaraz
Now, Tiafoe will take centre stage on Arthur Ashe in a maiden Grand Slam semifinal on Friday. On the other side of the net will be Carlos Alcaraz, the heir apparent to Nadal who is now the youngest slam semi-finalist since 2005, when Nadal embarked on his first title-winning run at Roland Garros. The 19-year-old third seed will be the favourite to reach the final but there are factors working to Tiafoe’s advantage. A hugely partisan crowd is assured, and Alcaraz was taken to the wire in an epic five-setter against Jannik Sinner lasting over five hours while the American beat Rublev in straight sets in half the time. Tiafoe’s unpredictability is matched by the Spaniard, whose shot-making skills are second to none, and the underdog tag will not do any harm against a player who is expected to win. There are also question marks over Alcaraz’s five-set credentials. Across three, has proven he can beat anyone – Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alex Zverev were seen off en route to the title in Madrid – but he has yet to take the definitive step on the grandest stage despite a decent 17-7 record overall in the long format, losing to Zverev at Roland Garros and Sinner at Wimbledon this year.
In any case, Tiafoe will go into the game with his standard approach, that of everything to gain and nothing to lose. “Yeah, Slams, crazy things can happen,” he said after beating Nadal. “Especially here in New York. It’s going to be a fun ride.”