Andrey Rublev and Frances Tiafoe first looked at each other as rivals on the courts of Flushing Meadows in 2014. Both were 15 years old at the time, Tiafoe was born three months later in January 1998, and as two of the hottest youngsters in their time they knew each other well. They fought to the death in a fierce contest in the quarter-finals of the US Junior Open, with Tiafoe toppling the top seed in a tight three-setter. Afterwards, they greeted each other with a warm hug.
While Rublev quickly rose to the top of the game as he transitioned to the professional tour, Tiafoe’s path has been much less clear. At times, his progress has been halted by inconsistency, lapses in concentration and too many close, brutal losses after big performances. But finally, on the biggest court of those same grounds, Tiafoe made his way to the top of the sport in his own time.
He accepted this huge opportunity with an impeccable display of attacking tennis, serving hugely and constantly moving forward. In the process, Tiafoe thoroughly outplayed ninth-seeded Rublev at every crucial moment to reach the semi-finals of the US Open in front of a raucous home crowd, winning 7-6 (3) , 7-6 (0). 6-4 without losing serve. Tiafoe is the first American men’s semi-finalist at the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2006.
“Man, that’s wild, that’s crazy,” Tiafoe said during his courtside interview. “I had the biggest win of my life [two days] ago and went out and got another big win. Andrey is a fantastic player, but supporting him is very important. That’s huge growth. It’s hard to turn the page, but I did it and now I’m in the semis.”
Tiafoe, the No. 22 seed in New York, had reached the fourth round of the US Open to widespread praise for the feat of reaching the second week three years in a row. But he didn’t know how to feel about the applause; he wanted a lot more than another fourth-round finish. Despite the tough task ahead of him, 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal had the best win of his career on Monday. Afterwards, he made it clear he wasn’t done.
Both players arrived on Arthur Ashe Stadium playing extremely sharp tennis, serving well and calmly navigating their service games. Tiafoe was facing a set point on his serve at 5-6, which he eradicated with a forehand and then held serve. After serving well, hitting his forehand and continuing to push forward, he closed out a brilliant opening break with a 130mph ace.
Tiafoe’s serve reached new heights in the second set as he won 100% of his first serve points, his level rising further as he played the tie breaker of his life, ending it with a backhand return winner. Tiafoe later called it the best tiebreaker he will ever play in his career. “It’s honestly been a laughable tiebreaker. You can’t make that up,” he said, smiling.
After more than two hours of play, Tiafoe secured the only break of the match at 3-3 with a smart forehand volley. As Tiafoe celebrated by looking at the crowd, nodding his head, Rublev covered his face with a towel and cried as the best chance of his career slipped away. The end came quickly as Tiafoe served the match to love with his 18th ace.
“I always find a way somehow on his track,” he said afterward. “I always find a way. Let’s enjoy this one – we’ve got two more, boys. We’ve got two more.”
Of the six men’s players remaining on Wednesday morning in one of the most wide-open men’s Grand Slam tournaments in recent memory, five of them have been ranked in the top 10 throughout their careers. Each of them has been waiting for this opportunity. Tiafoe was the odd one out, having reached a career-high ranking of just 24 last month. But his status only makes him more dangerous, giving him a level of freedom that others like Rublev may not be able to play with.
“Of course, I’m relieved that Christmas is out of the way,” Tiafoe said, smiling. “This is a real thing. Everybody’s going to be in these situations for the first time. People can buckle under pressure. People can rise. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a first. To have these guys [the big three], that was always a problem. It didn’t really matter where you were from, what your name was. You ran into these guys and they were just like, “See ya.”
From his formative years playing tennis in Maryland, College Park alongside his twin brother, Franklin, and his family in Sierra Leone, Tiafoe has always had the ability to achieve something great. He is an incredible athlete with an effective serve and a chaotic, all-court attacking style that has become increasingly clear in his mind. But at times his right let him down, he wasn’t organized enough behind the scenes and struggled to close out tight games.
His progress has been gradual and perhaps not as fast as he would have liked, but it has been steady and clear for some time. A self-described kid with a smile always on his face away from the courts, he sometimes looked like he was still learning how to play with a killer instinct. Now he does.
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