Andrey Rublev and Frances Tiafoe first stared each other down as rivals on the courts of Flushing Meadows in 2014. They were both 15 years old then, Tiafoe born three months later in January 1998, and as two of the most hyped youngsters of their time they knew each other well. They battled to death in a fierce contest in the quarterfinals of the US Open juniors, with Tiafoe toppling the top seed in a tight three-setter. Afterwards, they saluted each other in a warm embrace.
While Rublev rose swiftly towards the top of the game as they transitioned to the professional tour, Tiafoe’s path has been far less clear. His progress has at times been arrested by inconsistency, lapses of concentration and far too many tight, brutal losses after great performances. But finally, on the biggest court of those same grounds, Tiafoe made his move to the top of the sport in his own time.
He embraced this enormous opportunity with a faultless display of attacking tennis, serving tremendously and constantly moving forward. In the process, Tiafoe completely outplayed Rublev, the ninth seed, in all of the decisive moments to reach the US Open semi-final in front of a rowdy home crowd, winning 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4 without losing serves. Tiafoe is the first American men’s semi-finalist at the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2006.
“Man, this is wild, this is crazy,” said Tiafoe during his on-court interview. “Had the biggest win of my life [two days] ago and came out and got another big win. Andrey’s a hell of a player, but to back it up is huge. That’s huge growth. It’s tough to turn the page, but I did and now I’m in the seed.”
Tiafoe, the 22nd seed in New York, had arrived in the fourth round of US Open to widespread praise for the feat of reaching the second week three years in a row. But he did not know how to feel about the plaudits; he wanted much more than just another fourth-round finish. Despite the tough task before him, the 22-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal, he pulled off the best win of his career on Monday. Afterwards, he made it clear that he was not finished.
Both players arrived on Arthur Ashe Stadium playing extremely sharp tennis, serving well and calmly navigating their service games. Tiafoe faced a set point on his serve at 5-6, which he eradicated by laying into a forehand and then held serve. After serving well, battering his forehand and continuing to move forward, he closed off a brilliant opening tiebreak by slamming down an 130mph ace.
Tiafoe’s serving reached new heights in the second set as won 100% of his first-serve points, his level rising even more as he played the tiebreak of his life, ending it with a backhand return winner. Later, Tiafoe called it the best tiebreak he will ever play in his career. “It was honestly a laughable tiebreaker. You can’t make that up,” he said, smiling.
After over two hours of play, Tiafoe secured the only break of the match at 3-3 with an intelligent forehand drop volley. While Tiafoe celebrated by staring across at the crowd, nodding his head, Rublev covered his face with a towel and cried as the best opportunity of his career slipped away. The end came quickly as Tiafoe served out the match to love with his 18th ace.
“I always find a way somehow on his court,” he said afterwards. “I always find a way. Let’s enjoy this one – we’ve got two more, guys. We’ve got two more.”
Of the six male players remaining on Wednesday morning, in one of the most open men’s grand slam tournaments in recent memory, five of them have been ranked inside of the top 10 during their careers. Each of them have been waiting for such an opportunity. Tiafoe was the odd one out, having reached his career high ranking of just 24 last month. But his status only makes him more dangerous, affording him a level of freedom that others like Rublev may not be able to play with.
“For sure, put my mind at ease that Nadal is out of the way,” said Tiafoe, smiling. “That’s a real thing. Everyone is going to be in those first-time situations. People might gag under pressure. People may lift up. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a first. To have those guys [the big three], that was always a problem. Didn’t really matter where you’re from, what was your name. You ran into those guys, and they just said, ‘See ya’.”
From his formative years playing tennis in Maryland, College Park alongside his twin brother, Franklin, and their Sierra Leonean family, 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 forehand would let him down, he was not organized enough behind the scenes and he struggled to close out tight matches.
His progress has been gradual and perhaps not as quick as he would have liked, but it has been steady and clear for some time. A self-described goofy kid with a smile always on his face away from the courts, at times it seemed like he was still learning how to play with a killer instinct. Now he does.