NEW YORK –
Frances Tiafoe’s run to the US Open semifinals is primarily about Tiafoe himself, a 24-year-old from Maryland who got into tennis because his father was a janitor at a junior training center, a player who has never played in the past Match has won the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament so far, owning a career ATP title and a career under-500 record, and ranking between 24 and 74 for the past two seasons.
“A Cinderella Story,” to use his phrase.
Tiafoe’s story – which already includes a win over 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal en route to Friday’s matchup against No. 3 Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz for a place in the final – is still about that much more.
This is a significant step forward for American men’s tennis right now and could continue to help the sport grow in the future.
Tiafoe is the first man from the United States to reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick 16 years ago. He has a chance to give the country its first male champion at a slam since Roddick in New York 19 years ago.
If he gets past Alcaraz on Friday — the other men’s semifinal is Norway’s No. 5 Casper Ruud vs Russia’s No. 27 Karen Khachanov — Tiafoe would become the first black U.S. in a major final since MaliVai Washington finished second in 1996 Wimbledon.
“American men’s tennis has been fighting for a couple of decades. Fighting to a standard that we’ve set for ourselves: Grand Slam champions and Grand Slam finals,” Washington said in a phone interview Thursday. “That hasn’t happened among men for years.”
A high bar was set by the success of the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe – the last African American to reach the semifinals of the US Open in 1972 and the person for whom the event was the stadium named – and before that Don Budge and Bill Tilden. American women’s tennis has remained relevant well beyond the days of Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, thanks to the Williams sisters and other players who have been major champions or runners-up more recently, such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Sofia Kenin and Danielle Collins .
“It absolutely helps the US Open to have male and female champions from the United States, absolutely,” said Tournament Director Stacey Allaster. “We’ve had the greatest of all time on the women’s side for decades. And of course on the men’s side we had great American champions, from Pete and Andre to Andy. But it’s been a while.”
As Serena Williams prepared to leave her playing days behind, current athletes like Tiafoe, 18-year-old Coco Gauff and others spoke during the US Open about the impact she and sister Venus have had on their careers.
Gauff has said she plays what she called a “predominantly white sport” because she “saw someone who looked like me dominating the game.”
The importance of representation cannot be overstated.
“What Frances is doing now inspires me,” Washington said. “And I hope he inspires young players – not just black ones, but white ones, Hispanic ones, Asian ones. Given his background and the color of his skin, it will certainly have some impact on young black players and especially young black boys. And I hope it makes them think, ‘Okay, I’ve been playing tennis for a few years. That inspires me to keep going.’ Or: ‘I’ve never played tennis. That inspires me to try.’
Tiafoe’s enthusiasm on the court — “which you might see more in basketball,” Washington said — and personality off the court could help attract youth to tennis.
The same goes for the types of social media that didn’t exist on Washington game days.
“I don’t know if you can ever really know what kind of impact you’re going to have on the next generation until maybe years later someone says, ‘Hey, I started playing tennis because I remember watching you at Wimbledon have,” said Washington, whose youth foundation in Jacksonville, Fla., offers after-school and summer programs. “We’re always trying to look for a diverse group of players, trying to find the next player and maybe looking for that next player in unconventional places.”
Martin Blackman, head of the US Tennis Association’s player development program, says Tiafoe “resonates with the culture and is relevant. It represents a great opportunity to make tennis ‘cool’.”
Tiafoe doesn’t shy away from the idea that he can show others the way.
“He wants to be a role model,” said his coach Wayne Ferreira. “I always tell him: ‘If you want to be a role model, you have to win tennis matches.’ … If he can win this tournament he can be an inspiration to a lot of kids.”
Tiafoe was 6 years old when he first met Blackman, who at the time was a coach at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where little Francis and his twin brother stayed while Dad worked.
“He would look at the group classes, he would look at the private classes, he would bang the wall,” Blackman said.
Blackman sees what Tiafoe is doing as the result of a process that began more than a dozen years ago to try to develop future champions.
Blackman sees “healthy peer pressure” in the group of American men Tiafoe’s age who have come through the ranks — and rankings — including Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, and Tommy Paul.
“We want the same dynamic that we had in the early ’90s with Pete, Andre, Jim Courier and Michael Chang,” Blackman said. “It’s another reason why Frances’ breakthrough is so significant.”