Discover more from Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning
Frances Tiafoe making history for himself, maybe American men's tennis, too
Living his only-in-America story and after slaying Rafael Nadal on Monday, he can go Wednesday where none of this countrymen have gone since 2006
It’s called the U.S. Open, so an American male should have a shot, right?
Yet, because it’s conducted by the USTA, not the USGA, that’s not been the case pretty much forever.
The last American to win it was Andy Roddick, 19 years ago. So long ago, Andre Agassi played for the crown two years later, becoming Roger Federer’s second straight championship victim. The next year Roddick became the third (and the next two years, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, two non-Americans became the fourth and fifth).
Ever since … bupkis.
How can that be?
Not only has no American returned to the Open men’s final since Roddick in 2005, no American has reached a semifinal over the same span.
The last even to reach a quarterfinal was 33-year-old John Isner in 2018, and that was the first time an American had gotten that far since 2011, when Isner and Roddick, seeded 28th and 21st, both did it as dark horses.
In 2016, no American even reached the round-of-16. Nor did an American get that far in 2013 or 2014, too.
But it just keeps happening.
From 1974 to ’85, an American played for the title each year and in nine of those 12 years, Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe won it.
From 1990 to 2006, an American played for the Open championship in 15 of 17 years, Pete Sampras winning five times, Agassi twice and Roddick the once. Impossibly, Sampras topped Agassi for it in 1990 to win his first Grand Slam title and again 12 years later in 2002 to win his last.
You can’t make it up.
Nor can you make up the the sad state of American men’s tennis since.
Monday, though, was a day.
Yes, Rafael Nadal is 36 years old.
Also, he won the first two Grand Slam events of the year, in Melbourne and Paris, and though he did not claim Wimbledon, nor did he lose, withdrawing from a semifinal having torn an abdominal muscle, making Monday the day he’d attempt to win his 23rd straight match among tennis’ four majors.
Instead, in the fourth round, the round-of-16, Frances Tiafoe, an American with a fabulous American story, stopped him.
“Life changing,” McEnroe called it, offering color for ESPN.
Still, good chance you don’t know Tiafoe.
In fact, these days, you may know none of the American men who make their living on the court. And if you were to know one, it’s probably Taylor Fritz.
The 10th seed, he lost first round to Brandon Holt*, the world’s 303rd-ranked player.
*Good news, Holt’s an American, too, but he heartbreakingly lost second round to Argentina’s Pedro Cachin, dropping just three games the first two sets but losing the fourth and fifth in tiebreakers, the last of them 10-8. Crushing.
When Tiafoe took the court on Monday, he was already the last American in the field. After four sets lasting three hours and 34 minutes, winning 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, he still was.
Broken early in the fifth, Tiafoe stormed back to break Nadal three times, closing out the set and match.
The last point, up 15-40, Tiafoe’s return of Nadal’s first serve came back with such force there was no time to play it on the bounce. Instead, a step into the court via his service motion, Nadal executed the exceedingly rare and never recommended baseline volley. Tiafoe then attacked, coming forward yet needing no volley, Nadal having sent a weak backhand into the net.
If disinclined to root for Tiafoe because, hey, it’s just tennis, maybe his story will change your mind.
A first-generation American, his father came over first, in 1993, three years before his mother, also from Sierra Leone, fleeing civil war.
Tiafoe was born on Jan. 20, 1998, a year before his father became a day worker, helping to build the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., after which he was hired as the facility’s custodian.
Soon, Tiafoe’s father took a second job at the property, as explained in a terrific long-form Washington Post profile from sportswriter Liz Clarke in 2014, Tiafoe still a 16-year-old junior at the time.
Chronically strapped for cash, Tiafoe Sr. turned it into two jobs: keeping the complex clean by day and taking care of the clay courts by night. He had never played tennis in his life. But he quickly learned to water and roll the courts and sometimes completely resurface them, hauling dozens of 75-pound bags of clay to each court.
It was while working these round-the-clock shifts that he moved into a vacant 10-by-14-foot room at the tennis complex. He slept and took his showers there, ordered in food and stored his clothes all over the complex — on hangers, in a suitcase, in a shed outside. And during stretches when the mother of his sons, Alphina Kamara, worked night shifts as a licensed practical nurse, the boys stayed with him.
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As 5-year-olds, Frances and twin brother Franklin began receiving on-the-house lessons. Soon, Franklin was content to play just to play.
Frances became consumed.
His family originally from Sierra Leone, his first coach, beginning at 8 years old, Misha Kouznetsov, was a Russian who came to the United States as a 15-year-old to pursue tennis, nine years before he became a staff coach at the Champions Center.
Tiafoe’s coach now is Wayne Ferreira, a white South African who grew up in the game in Johannesburg, Apartheid still the law.
Yet, Monday, in Tiafoe’s friends box, there was Ferreira surrounded by Tiafoe’s family, heartily celebrating the biggest victory of his player’s life and, perhaps, the biggest win in American men’s tennis since Roddick won it all.
Though Roddick and Agassi have played for the Open crown since, it was before American men’s tennis took its impossible dive.
Given how long Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have ruled the sport, the 24-year-old Tiafoe may only now be entering a prime that could last another 10 years.
The 22nd seed, he’ll face ninth-seed Andrey Rublev, a Russian, at noon Wednesday.
You should watch
Maybe take part in some real-life American tennis history.