NEW YORK: Few would have given much thought to the fact that just 10 days ago, Frances Tiafoe ended the American men’s nearly two-decade title drought at the US Open.
When he faced Rafa Nadal in the fourth round, it seemed game over even before he stepped onto the pitch for a showdown with the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Incredibly, the 24-year-old has not only toppled Nadal but is now just two wins away from becoming the first American to lift the US Open trophy since Andy Roddick in 2003.
To get the chance to do so, however, he must navigate past the man billed as the next big thing in tennis – fiery Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz.
“(It) reassured me that Nadal is out of the way,” a grinning Tiafoe told reporters after his quarterfinals win over Russia’s Andrey Rublev.
However, Alcaraz will not be a pushover. Twelve months after reaching the last eight on his debut at Flushing Meadows, the 19-year-old Spaniard returned as the third seed and showed his determination to go all the way, notching five straight wins to reach the final last four.
He fought into the early hours of Thursday to defeat Jannik Sinner in a grueling quarter-final lasting five hours and 15 minutes, which kept him in contention to become the youngest player to ever climb to the top of the ATP rankings at the end of the tournament.
“It’s going to be really, really tough,” Alcaraz, who lost to Tiafoe in their only previous clash, told reporters.
Like Tiafoe, this is his first Grand Slam semifinal.
“Everyone knows the level of Frances… He’s playing amazingly right now,” said Alcaraz. “I feel great to be in my first semi-final at a Grand Slam. I’ll feel better if I reach the semifinals here at the US Open.”
Norway’s fifth-placed Casper Ruud, who also has a link to Nadal, who honed his tennis skills at the Spaniard’s tennis academy in Mallorca, is the other player struggling to dethrone Daniil Medvedev as world number one.
To keep his hopes of a first Grand Slam title alive and climbing to the top of the rankings, the French Open finalist will need to find a way past Russia’s Karen Khachanov.
While Ruud is known for thriving on clay, winning three surface titles this year and finishing second to Nadal at Roland Garros, he showed his hard-court credentials by reaching the Miami final this year.
“To be honest, I’m a bit surprised to have made it to the semi-finals here,” said Ruud, who put on a dominant performance against Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals.
“I’ve developed my hard court game a lot in the last year or two and I think this year Miami has shown me – and I’ve proved it to myself – that I can beat good players and reach later stages in big hard court tournaments.”
Khachanov made a tough run at New York, with early exits in Washington, Montreal and Cincinnati, but showed he could keep his cool even in the most difficult moments as he overcame fiery Aussie Nick Kyrgios in a five-set quarterfinal.
“It’s like another step forward,” said Khachanov, who had never made it past the third round at the US Open. “I’m really, really happy that I was able to do it.”
A first-time Grand Slam winner is guaranteed at Flushing Meadows as the last four remaining men have never hoisted a major trophy.