It ended, as so many Cinderella stories do in sports, with a busted glass slipper. But not before Frances Tiafoe made some history and lit up the night with his spirit and shot-making.
It had been 54 years ago that Arthur Ashe won this tournament, the last African-American man to capture the U.S. Open title. And there, in the stadium named after that great champion, Tiafoe made his exuberant stand before he dropped a dazzling, four-hour, 18-minute semifinal to Carlos Alcaraz, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3.
“I gave everything I had,” Tiafoe told the crowd, fighting off tears, when it was done. “I thought I let you guys down. This one really hurts. I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna win this thing. I’m sorry guys.”
Until he finally lost, Tiafoe was having the time of his life, and it was totally contagious. As he and Alcaraz chased down ball after ball with astounding athleticism in this match, they laughed and grinned at their own acrobatic feats. The crowd was charmed by both players, splitting its allegiance. Alcaraz is the next, transcendent star, after all. ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale has predicted more than 20 majors for the kid. Tiafoe is the homegrown nova.
Tiafoe rallied from some doldrums to save a match point in the fourth set. He was suddenly revived. He battled into the night, but could not pull off the upset. Tiafoe was broken at love on a double-fault in the fifth game of the fifth set and ran out of miracles against the nerveless 19-year-old Spaniard.
In theory, Alcaraz should never have been able to find enough energy for this performance. The teenager played until 2:50 early Thursday morning in a marathon, five-set quarterfinal against Jannik Sinner. He had limited time to freshen up for the semi on Friday.
Somehow, Alcaraz managed just fine, even after dropping the first- and fourth-set tiebreakers.
“It’s a Grand Slam,” Alcaraz said. “We have to give everything we have inside… five hours… six hours.”
For every Tiafoe comeback, Alcaraz engineered one of his own. He broke Tiafoe in the sixth game of the second set after ducking at the net under the American’s long passing shot. Alcaraz then broke Tiafoe again in the first game of the third set, when Tiafoe played a very sloppy game.
The seesaw contest continued. Tiafoe was beaten. Then he wasn’t. Then, ultimately, he was.
None of this lessened the momentous event. It had been 16 years since the last American man, Andy Roddick, had reached the semis at the Open, and 19 years since Roddick actually won it. Since then, the top American men had all been flawed in one fashion or another, peaking below the Top 10 or 20.
Tiafoe, 24, still has time to break through that ceiling. His back story is every bit as remarkable as that of the Williams sisters; worthy of its own feature film. His father, Constant, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was hired as a temp on a construction crew to build a tennis center in College Park, Md. Then he got a job at that center as an on-site custodian. Frances and his twin brother, Franklin, basically lived at that center for the next 11 years, and for much of that time Frances did little except play tennis.
His talent and dedication were nurtured by a local coach, Misha Kouznetsov, who trained the kid until he was taken under the wing of the U.S. Tennis Association in Florida.
Tiafoe had no margin for error. He had to make believers out of those with the power to mold a professional career. He still harbors that sense of urgency, and a desire to show off to the world.
“I couldn’t really put my finger on where it came from,” he said. “I just love playing in front of a packed crowd. I feel like that’s why you train hard. Show the world what you can do. Don’t shy away from it. Go to it.”
He took out one of the G.O.A.T.s at the Open, beating Rafa Nadal with a near-perfect performance in the Round of !6. Then he kept up that insane level against Andrey Rublev in a quarterfinal.
“I’m seeing the ball like a watermelon right now,” Tiafoe said. “I’m using my athleticism, coming forward a lot, using my forehand. I’m hugging the baseline, going for my serve. I know when to use what.”
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In Alcaraz, however, Tiafoe was facing a different sort of challenge, a tougher puzzle to solve.
Alcaraz will next face Casper Ruud in a battle for a first major title and the No. 1 ranking.
‘It’s amazing to be able to fight for big things,” Alcaraz said. “I can see the No. 1 in the world, but it’s still a long way away. I have to handle the nerves of being in a Grand Slam final.”
It may be a bit early to declare for certain that the next generation has arrived. Novak Djokovic might well have won this tournament, if he hadn’t been such a stubborn vaccine resister. But nobody was missing Djokovic in this Open, on Friday night. The fans got an hour of amazing, competitive tennis, before Tiafoe suffered a sudden letdown in full view of 20,000 spectators and a primetime cable audience. Then he gave them all a wondrous fourth set, an unexpected revival.
In the end, though, It became another launch pad for Alcaraz, who won his third straight five-setter this week. It turned into a long night for Tiafoe. Not quite enough winners. He left Ashe Stadium with a rueful wave.
The better tennis game beat the better story.
Happens a lot.