Thank you Frances Tiafoe
The first American to reach a U.S. Open semifinal since 2006 played two bad sets Friday, losing in five. Still, getting there, he gave so many of us a new reason to reengage with a great sport.
The clock struck midnight, almost literally, on Frances Tiafoe.
The 24-year-old, who went where no American man had gone since 2006 at the U.S. Open, where only one in tennis’ other three majors since ’18 and where only three in any major since ’09, had his Cinderella run cut short by 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz in five sets Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Alcaraz will meet Norway’s Casper Ruud in the championship.
“I gave it everything I had,” Tiafoe said.
Only he couldn’t have given the second and third sets, when he played flat-footed, without energy or apparent interest on the way to Alcaraz’s 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3 victory.
Perhaps when Tiafoe’s ready to hear the cold hard truth, his coach, South African Wayne Ferreira, will tell him, offering Tiafoe a better grasp of the razor thin margins he must navigate to continue his climb.
None of that, though, diminishes the joyride upon which Tiafoe took us along, unlocking memories to a time Tiger Woods had yet to make golf cooler than tennis and American men — though perhaps not so dominantly as they had in the 70s and 80s — ruled the roost, when the year-end 1995 ATP rankings included four among the top eight, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi at Nos. 1 and 2 and Michael Chang and Jim Courier at Nos. 5 and 8.
Now the wish is Tiafoe’s no flash in the pan, that falling flat after winning his seventh straight Open tiebreaker in Friday’s first set only makes him hungrier, tougher and maybe fitter, too.
Because for all of Chris Fowler and John and Patrick McEnroe’s salutes to Tiafoe’s fitness, it was Alcaraz who looked fresher, an odd fact given Tiafoe won his Wednesday quarterfinal in the afternoon and Alcaraz his in five sets a few minutes before 3 a.m. Thursday morning.
If you can believe it, the only two players ever to reach an Open final on the back of three straight five-set victories prior to Friday were Stefan Edberg and Agassi, Alcaraz becoming the third.
If you watched, you may be like me.
You may have grown up on tennis in the 70s and 80s, all the way through college.
You may even have set your alarm to get up at 7 each morning to watch ESPN’s coverage of the 1986 French Open, when unseeded Michael Pernfors reached the final. You may even have known Pernfors had recently claimed an NCAA championship as a Georgia Bulldog, because ESPN broadcast that, too, and what else were you going to watch?
Mostly, you might have known tennis the way you knew the other sports, watching the majors, watching Davis Cup, knowing who hit their backhand with one arm and who hit it with two and maintaining most of that interest until 2010 or so, after Roger Federer had taken over the sport and it became clear his only chasers would be Rafael Nadal, a Spaniard, and Novak Djokovic, a Serb.
And you may want to care about it like you used to, yet fear Tiafoe could be just another Mardy Fish, John Isner or Sam Querrey, who enjoyed one or two nice runs in the majors, yet never challenged to become America’s next great male tennis hope, the last guy to do that being Andy Roddick.
Tiafoe got where he went as the No. 22 seed. His semifinal finish actually marked his third straight Open to get to the round-of-16.
Taylor Fritz, another 24-year-old. American, entered the No. 10 seed. Though he fell in he first round, earlier this year he reached the round-of-16 at the Australian Open and the quarterfinal round at Wimbledon.
Two other Americans, Tommy Paul and Maxime Cressy, both 25, entered the Nos. 29 and 30 seeds, each with one round-of-16 credit in the majors: Paul at Wimbledon, Cressy at the Australian, both this year.
“I will come back and I will win this someday,” Tiafoe said, perhaps a minute after saying he gave it his all.
Let’s hope so.
It’s been so long.
Meanwhile, we can watch Alcaraz, who is swashbuckling, the best teenager in the men’s draw since Boris Becker won back-to-back Wimbledons at 17 and 18 and who can grab the No. 1 world ranking by topping Roof, beginning at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Even without Americans going deep, it remains a great sport.
Good on Tiafoe for reminding us.
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