Frances Tiafoe Reaches US Open Semifinals With Win Over Rublev – The New York Times

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Tiafoe backed up a win over Rafael Nadal with a quarterfinal victory over Andrey Rublev, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4.
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There are so many different kinds of pressure that tennis players can exert on their opponents over the course of a match.
Blasting massive serve after massive serve. Hitting deep. Hounding the baseline to push the opponent into the back of the court. Rushing the net and standing tall there, unafraid, just 35 feet away. There is even the pressure of the scoreboard that comes with early leads in games, or of the softest drop shots that can land like uppercuts to the gut.
An ability to get a crowd of more than 20,000 to raise the decibel count to uncomfortable levels at the crucial moments also helps.
Frances Tiafoe, who used all those skills and more in his tight three-set win over Andrey Rublev of Russia on Wednesday, has another tool, too. On hot, sweaty afternoons, when he changes his shirt, he sits bare-chested in his chair for a good bit, the muscles rippling across his back, showing off a physique more befitting a mixed martial arts octagon than a tennis court.
To beat him, opponents have to get through that, which can stick in the mind during those critical tests of nerve known as tiebreakers. Tiafoe won, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4, in a match that was so even for so long, except when Tiafoe surged during the tiebreakers, as he has done for 10 days. He has played six tiebreakers in this tournament and has won them all, including a 7-0 gem against Rublev in the second set Wednesday.
“Best tiebreaker I will ever play,” Tiafoe said after the match. “Ridiculous.”
No American man has won the U.S. Open or any Grand Slam singles title since 2003, when Andy Roddick, who was on hand Wednesday to watch Tiafoe, lifted the trophy in New York. (The N.B.A. star Bradley Beal, a Tiafoe fan and friend who plays for his beloved Washington Wizards, was there, too.)
Sam Querrey, a big-serving Californian, plowed into the Wimbledon semifinals in 2017 and John Isner got there in 2018. But even then, those moments felt like the ceilings they turned out to be.
This is different. At 24, Tiafoe beat Rafael Nadal on Sunday in a ground-shifting upset that made him the first American born after 1989 to beat Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament. The win made him the youngest American to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 16 years.
He is fast and fearless, and serves at more than 130 miles per hour in game after game. He is suddenly steady after years of being prone to peaks and valleys in the middle of sets and matches. His hands have always been quick; now they are just as soft as well and able to create the calmest drop volleys off the most furious forehands.
And with one last blasted ace, he became a U.S. Open semifinalist, and a figure of hope in a country that has watched its female players perform on the biggest stages in the biggest matches during the last decade and wondered when a man might come along and be able to do the same.
Tiafoe will play the winner of Wednesday night’s match between Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish prodigy who will become the world’s top-ranked player if he wins this tournament, and Jannik Sinner, a 21-year-old Italian seeded 11th.
“I hope they play a marathon match,” Tiafoe joked.
Many in the game see Sinner vs. Alcaraz as a potential sequel to the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic rivalries that have dominated the men’s game for more than 15 years. Tiafoe would love to play a major role in whatever grand narratives the sport crafts during the next decade.
Three years ago at the Australian Open, the only other time he made a Grand Slam quarterfinal, that looked like it might be a possibility. But Tiafoe slumped after that breakthrough, falling out the top 80 in the world rankings.
Then, starting roughly two years ago with the 2020 U.S. Open, a tournament played near the height of the pandemic with no spectators, Tiafoe began a steady climb back into the top 30, and lately had been trying to catch up with the other top Americans around his age, a clique including Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul with whom he grew up. Sometimes, it’s not speed that matters most, but direction.
“Some players have difficulty being really, really talented and not playing the game the way you need to do,” said Wayne Ferreira, a top professional in the 1980s and 1990s who has coached Tiafoe the past two years. “The food intake was terrible and the effort in the practicing and the court wasn’t good enough.”
Tiafoe was plenty good enough Wednesday, capping off, for now, a remarkable five days during which he has become the buzz of a tournament that has not lacked for it since the first ball rose into the air.
First the fans came for Serena Williams at this U.S. Open to see the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion make one last run. Then they came for Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old heir apparent to Williams. And on Wednesday, they came to Arthur Ashe Stadium for Tiafoe.
Many of them may have had little idea of who the no-longer-really-a-kid from Hyattsville, Md., was when the tournament started. Now they surely know him, the child of immigrants from Sierra Leone, who started playing tennis because his father was a janitor at a local tennis club.
During matches, his player bench is a complete mess, with rackets and towels everywhere.
“Diabolical,” is how he described it. His hotel room is that way, too, he said.
He has an innate love for bright lights and know-how for playing before screaming throngs, and a game that is fast becoming as varied and creative as it is an exercise both in pressure of power and the power of pressure. That pressure had Rublev, a gentle soul who burns hot on a tennis court, kicking at balls in the final moments of the two-hour, 36-minute battle.
Rublev had played Tiafoe nearly to a draw during the first 100 minutes. Then came the second-set tiebreaker, and Tiafoe played seven of the best points of his career, bullying Rublev to submission.
He smashed service returns back at Rublev’s feet, feathered two lusty drop volleys, smashed two aces and finished off the sweep with a searing backhand winner he punctuated with what is becoming his signature celebration — a sprint back to his courtside chair.
Rublev, seeded ninth, kept fighting hard but was largely finished with Tiafoe in peak form. He cracked for good while serving seven games later, whipping an easy forehand, usually one of the best in the game, into the middle of the net to give Tiafoe a shot to break his serve, then sending a backhand in the middle of the court long with Tiafoe standing at the net just a few feet away.
He will be back there Friday, trying to exert all forms of pressure once more.


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