His 2022 US Open dream may have been ended by Carlos Alcaraz on Friday night, but Frances Tiafoe believes his run to the semi-finals in New York could be the start of something bigger.
“I just proved that, honestly, I can play with the best obviously, and I’m capable of winning Grand Slams,” said Tiafoe after falling to the Spaniard in an epic five-setter at Flushing Meadows. “I think everyone knew when I play my best what I could do. But you know how close I can actually be to be one of those guys and to do this consistently.
“Obviously through my career I’ve been pretty sporadic of playing well, veering off for a while. I’ve always backed myself against the best players in the world. I’m doing it on a consistent basis, starting to beat guys more readily. [I’m] ready to take the next step.”
Tiafoe’s whirlwind fortnight in New York saw him become the only man to defeat Rafael Nadal at a major in 2022 with a fourth-round victory, before he reached his maiden Grand Slam semi-final with a sublime straight-sets win against ninth seed Andrey Rublev.
“I haven’t even let it soak in yet, honestly,” said the American. “But craziest two weeks of my life. Craziest two weeks of my life. Stuff you dream about doing.
“[I] fell a little short. But, I mean, getting to the fourth round three years in a row, that’s already a good accomplishment. Beating Rafa, being the only player to beat Rafa in a Slam this year, the year he’s had. Him being in the race to be No. 1 in the world, shut that down.
“Just saying you beat him in a Grand Slam… It’s not an easy task. To have my first time beating him here in New York in front of everybody and seeing what that meant, that was crazy.”
Tiafoe believes a new approach to training and match preparation has been a key driver of his successes in New York.
“I’m definitely falling in love with the process and doing the work much more,” said Tiafoe, who is set to break the Top 20 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings for the first time on Monday. “I’m working smarter, I’m understanding. I’ve always tried hard, but [I’m making] my weaknesses stronger, breaking down my game a lot more, and I am a student of the game again.
“I always knew to put two weeks together is obviously the toughest thing in the world. That’s why only three guys were doing it for so long. After getting this deep, I understand how much rest is important during two weeks of slams. Again, I didn’t go out to dinner one time. Just resting. It’s tough. I mean, it’s definitely tough, three-out-of-five.”
Tiafoe’s exploits have captured the imagination of the home fans this fortnight. As it had during his triumphs against Nadal and Rublev, the support for Tiafoe from the stands contributed to a deafening atmosphere inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for his semi-final clash with Alcaraz. He and the Spaniard responded in kind, treating the crowd to a pulsating four-hour, 19-minute epic.
“It was so electric,” said Tiafoe. “I mean, the tennis definitely matched the hype of the match. Unbelievable shot-making, gets, extending points, crazy shots, I mean, at crazy times.
“I was getting riled up. People love to see that guy play, so they were getting behind him, too. Obviously, I would have loved to win tonight, but I think tennis won tonight. I think the crowd got what they expected. I just wish I was the one who got the W.”
Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States, was among Tiafoe’s supporters in the crowd during Saturday’s semi-final. For Tiafoe, her presence added another surreal element to an already whirlwind fortnight.
“[It was] crazy getting to meet her after,” said the 24-year-old. “[I’ve] seen her before, but it’s a little bit different circumstance. She sees me and she’s actually excited to see me. Yeah, unbelievable. Unbelievable night.”
Tiafoe was full of praise for Alcaraz, who will take on Casper Ruud in Sunday’s championship match. Should the Spaniard triumph and lift his maiden Grand Slam crown, he will also become the youngest No. 1 spot in the history of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
“I think it’s going to be very tough to play him [in future],” said Tiafoe. “He’s one of the best players in the world, for sure. He’s so young. He hits the ball so hard. I never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly. I’ve seen him get a lot of balls, but I was hitting some drop volleys that I’ve been hitting. He’s getting there. How he’s able to extend points, incredible.
“He’s a hell of a player. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.”
One particularly positive sign for Tiafoe moving forward is the way he handled the high-pressure moments during his run in New York. The 22nd seed won eight from eight tie-breaks he played across his six matches this fortnight, including two against Alcaraz on Friday.
“I don’t know,” said Tiafoe, when asked about the secret behind his tie-break success. “I guess the breakers are just making sense. I really don’t know what to say. Usually in the other breakers, I was serving huge. Today I wasn’t serving so well at all. So, I was playing really well from the back.
“To seven points, you can get a little rhythm. If you get hot early, get on the guy. Plus the crowd’s behind me. You know, the guy gets a little nervous.
“It’s not easy to go 8-0 in breakers. I played a lot in this tournament. I wish the fifth [set] was a breaker, because maybe I would have been 9-and-0.”