There are so many different pressures that tennis players can exert on their opponents during a match.
Blowing up massive serve after massive serve. Hit deep. Stalking the baseline to push the opponent deep down the court. Rushing to the net and standing there, fearless, just 35 feet away. There’s even the dash pressure that comes with early leads in plays, or the softest dropshots that can land like uppercuts in the guts.
The ability to get a crowd of over 20,000 to raise the decibel count to uncomfortable levels at crucial times also helps.
Frances Tiafoe, who used all of these skills and more in her narrow three-set victory over Russia’s Andrey Rublev on Wednesday, also has another tool. On hot, muggy afternoons, when he changes his shirt, he sits shirtless in his chair for quite a while, muscles rippling across his back, showing off a physique more worthy of a mixed martial arts octagon than of a tennis court.
To beat him, opponents have to get through this, which can stick in the mind during those critical nerf tests known as tiebreakers. Tiafoe prevailed, 7-6(3), 7-6(0), 6-4, in a game that has been for so long, except when Tiafoe surged in the tiebreakers, as he been doing it for 10 days. He has had six tiebreakers in this tournament and won them all, including a 7-0 gem against Rublev in the second set on Wednesday.
“Best tiebreaker I’ll ever play,” Tiafoe said after the game. “Ridiculous.”
No American has won the US Open or a Grand Slam singles title since 2003, when Andy Roddick, who was on hand Wednesday to watch Tiafoe, lifted the trophy in New York. (NBA star Bradley Beal, a Tiafoe fan and friend who plays for his beloved Washington Wizards, was also there.)
Big-serving Californian Sam Querrey made the Wimbledon semifinals in 2017 and John Isner made it 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 shocking 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 makes him the youngest American to reach the US Open quarter-finals in 16 years.
He is fast and fearless and serves at over 210 km/h game after game. He’s suddenly stable after years of ups and downs amid sets and matches. His hands have always been quick; now they’re just as soft and capable of creating the calmest volleys on the furious forehands.
And with one final screwed-up ace, he became a US Open semi-finalist and a figure of hope in a country that has seen its players perform on the biggest stages of the biggest matches of the past decade and s wondered when a man could come and be able to do the same.
Tiafoe will face the winner of Wednesday night’s match between Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish prodigy who will become the best player in the world if he wins this tournament, and Jannik Sinner, a 21-year-old Italian seeded 11th.
“Hopefully they play a marathon game,” 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 over 15 years. Tiafoe would like to play a major role in all the great sports crafting stories over the next decade.
Three years ago at the Australian Open, the only other time he made a Grand Slam quarter-final, it seemed like a possibility. But Tiafoe slumped after this breakthrough, falling into the top 80 of the world rankings.
Then, starting about two years ago with the 2020 US Open, a tournament played near the peak of the pandemic without spectators, Tiafoe began a steady climb back into the top 30, and had recently been trying to catch up with other top Americans. . around his age, a clique including Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul who he grew up with. Sometimes it’s not the speed that matters most, but the direction.
“Some players struggle with being really, really talented and not playing the game right,” said Wayne Ferreira, a top professional in the 1980s and 1990s who coached Tiafoe for the past two years. . “The food intake was terrible and the effort in practice and the court wasn’t good enough.”
Tiafoe was pretty good on Wednesday, capping, so far, a remarkable five days in which he became the buzz of a tournament that hasn’t been lacking since the first ball flew.
Fans first came to pick up Serena Williams at this US Open to see the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion make one last run. Then they came for Coco Gauff, Williams’ 18-year-old heir apparent. And on Wednesday they came to Arthur Ashe Stadium for Tiafoe.
Many of them may have had no idea who was more of a kid from Hyattsville, Maryland 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 games, his bench is messy, with rackets and towels everywhere.
“Diabolical” is how he described it. His hotel room is like that too, he says.
He has an innate love for bright lights and a knack for performing in front of screaming crowds, and a game that quickly becomes as varied and creative as it is an exercise in both power pressing and pressure power. That pressure had Rublev, a gentle soul who burns on a tennis court, kicking balls in the final moments of the two-hour, 36-minute battle.
Rublev had played Tiafoe almost evenly for the first 100 minutes. Then came the second-set tiebreaker, and Tiafoe played seven career-best points, bullying Rublev into submission.
He smashed serve returns at the feet of Rublev, landed two vigorous volleys, smashed two aces and finished the sweep with a blistering backhand that he punctuated with what is becoming his signature celebration – a sprint back to his chair at the edge of the field.
Rublev, seeded ninth, continued to fight but largely finished with Tiafoe at the top of her game. 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 chance to break his serve, then sending a backhand down the middle. of the short. long with Tiafoe standing at the net just yards away.
He will be back there on Friday, trying once again to exert all forms of pressure.
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