‘Why not me?’ How Frances Tiafoe became the player capable of history at the US Open

NEW YORK — If you wanted to nitpick Frances Tiafoe’s performance on Wednesday at the US Open, you didn’t have to try too hard. No, it had nothing to do with his tennis. He was pretty much perfect there, beating No.9 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia in straight sets, 7-6(3), 7-6(0), 6-4, and becoming the first American in 16 years old to reach the semi-finals here. The real problem was his players’ bench – the small area to the side where players sit during changes – which seemed to be among the most messy ever, clothes strewn everywhere, shoes and racquets piled on top of towels, a teenager’s bedroom appearing out of nowhere just off the pitch at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“My bench is diabolical,” Tiafoe said.

In fact, this is only the beginning.

“My hotel room right now is also a disgrace,” he said.

Tiafoe should be excused for a bit of negligence. Hey, he’s 24 and in the middle of the run of his life, a No. 22 seed who is dazzling New York crowds with his magnetic game, creating buzz in the sports world and giving American men’s tennis a real chance for his first Grand Slam Champion in a generation. Still, if there’s anything telling about the explosion of clothing and gear, it’s that Tiafoe’s career began to take off when he started paying attention to the little things, when his daily commitment began to match his all-consuming love for the sport of tennis. Ehh, I guess the clean part comes next.

“You go through different stages in your life,” Tiafoe said Wednesday, in the hours after breaking through Rafael Nadal with another victory. “When I first came on the scene, going up the rankings, everything was pretty good. I got a little complacent.

When Tiafoe was young, her dedication to tennis was never in question. In fact, the coaches had to temper his insatiable need to attend sports. He learned to play at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where his father, Frances Sr., an immigrant from Sierra Leone, had worked on the construction crew and became the maintenance man. full time. He became so enamored with the sport that he spent almost every waking hour on the court. “Hours and hours,” he said. He then completed his training with a nocturnal habit of television:

“The one thing I really watched growing up was Tennis Channel,” he said.

He fell for the forehand of Juan Martin del Potro, the great Argentinian puncher. He soaked up hours of the Williams sisters’ greatest hits. Like the Washington Post once documentedhe even reveled in tactile experiences, like the smell of a new box of bullets.

Tiafoe had the talent and drive to become one of the best junior players in the United States, and when he reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in 2019, aged 21, he seemed to be on the right track. In fact, he realized he had to be better. In 2020, he added Wayne Ferreira, the former South Africa pro, to his coaching and staff team. Ferreira pushed Tiafoe to be more professional, correct her diet, improve her training, and train her mind to focus.

“Some players struggle to be really, really talented and play the game without really understanding what you need to do,” Ferreira said Wednesday. “I think I helped him, because I played and went through the issues of being relatively talented and being lazy and then finding the right team, the people behind me pushing me to do the good thing day to day with food, practice and with fitness and gym work.

Ferreira would offer challenges to Tiafoe, like racing off the field without listening to music on her phone or cutting up cookies and chocolate and syncing her meals with her training schedule. “He really had to improve the food,” he said. “The food intake was terrible at first.”

Tiafoe’s game development was on full display on Wednesday as he took a two-set lead against Rublev, a 24-year-old compatriot who was once a junior rival. Tiafoe prevailed in the tiebreaker of the first set, then was clear in the second, winning seven points in a row. He called it the best tiebreaker he will ever play.

Just like he did in his decisive victory over Nadal in the fourth round, Tiafoe played tennis consistently, limiting mistakes and seizing opportunities. He also deployed his gigantic serve, which neutralized Rublev, who couldn’t earn a break in three sets.

Tiafoe has always had the makings of a powerful serve, capable of turning on radar guns and, at times, making his opponents uncomfortable. But in Ferreira’s mind, it never became a fully operational weapon.

“He was always one to slip the ball,” Ferreira said. “So we’re working really hard to get him to hit the serve as hard as he can.”

Tiafoe finished with 18 aces against Rublev, including one from match point, but his first-serve percentage still hovered well below 60%. If he can improve on that, Ferreira believes he could take it a step further. Yes, Tiafoe can still improve, which might be the most tantalizing prospect of all. Despite all of his progress, Tiafoe has still struggled at times on the ATP Tour, and he has just one career tournament win — at the Delray Beach Open in 2018. That run wasn’t entirely expected. Not now, at least.

Tiafoe, however, still made sense at the moment. And as he charmed the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium – including Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal – he rose to the occasion again. Not since Andy Roddick in 2006 has an American reached the semi-finals of the US Open. And since Arthur Ashe himself in 1972, no black man had been this far in New York, a fact Tiafoe acknowledged Wednesday night.

“At the end of the day, I like the fact that because of Frances Tiafoe, there are a lot of people of color playing tennis,” he said. “That’s obviously a goal for me. That’s why I’m here.

Now, of course, Tiafoe has a chance to make more history. He will face either Spain’s No. 3 seed Carlos Alcaraz or Italy’s No. 11 seed Jannik Sinner – two of the sport’s best young talents – in the semi-finals on Friday, and if he should win that, he would face the winner of the No. 5 seed Casper Ruud and the No. 27 seed Karen Khachanov in the final. None of the aforementioned men have won a Grand Slam title.

“It’s a real thing,” Tiafoe said. “I mean, everyone is going to be in these situations for the first time.”

It had been almost two hours since Tiafoe had completed his victory. He had cleaned up his mess inside Arthur Ashe. His wrist showed a bracelet donated by Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy, one of his many NBA friends. The bracelet features three words – “Why not me?” – and as he prepared for his first Grand Slam semi-final, his ever-living magical run, he seemed to be taking the message to heart.

Why not him?

“You know,” he said, “everyone loves a Cinderella story. I’m just trying to make one.

(Photo: Lev Radin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)