Frances Tiafoe apologized to the crowd, but he had no reason to apologize.
He had just lost a heartbreaking semifinal at the US Open, but he had won the admiration of millions of people who had never paid much attention or gone out of their way to watch him play tennis.
In the aftermath of a five-set loss to 19-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz after 4 hours and 19 minutes on Friday, Tiafoe vowed to win this tournament one day.
But that may be beside the point.
If these past two weeks are anything the 24-year-old American can be, the next decade of men’s tennis is going to be really, really fun to watch.
There shouldn’t even be an ounce of shame for Tiafoe losing an epic (6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3) to Alcaraz, who is the best teenage prospect to emerge since Rafael Nadal burst onto the scene in 2005 as an 18-year-old won the French Open. Tiafoe fought, played with tremendous heart, came up with otherworldly shots and pushed Alcaraz to the brink. It just wasn’t enough.
But the high quality of the game, the entertainment value of these two brilliant players coming and going under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium and the charisma they both displayed made Friday’s semi-final a special event that should giving tennis fans old and new a lot of hope for what the sport can be.
“Obviously I would have loved to win tonight,” said Tiafoe. “But I think tennis won tonight.”
For all the worry about what it will look like when Roger Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic are gone for good, the beautiful thing about the sport is that there is always someone else who comes along and raises the bar. bar for what is possible. If this is what Grand Slam tennis looks like in the post-Big Three era, the sport will be more than fine.
There is no doubt that Alcaraz, who will play their first Grand Slam final against Norway’s Casper Ruud on Sunday, will experience many of these moments. He is such an overwhelming talent, with an almost unprecedented set of power, touch, fitness and nerve, that Grand Slam titles could very well come in bunches.
The question is whether this US Open was a moment for Tiafoe or the start of something big. Hopefully it’s the latter, because when Tiafoe is as sharp and composed as he was during this tournament, it makes the whole tour more interesting, more relatable, and a whole lot more fun.
He’s a guy who brought NBA players like Bradley Beal to their first tennis game and inspired tweets from LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes. He took former first lady Michelle Obama to the semifinals. His story, picking up the game at a tennis facility where his immigrant father was a goalkeeper, is inspiring and an example of what is possible for American tennis if some of this country’s great athletes are given the opportunity to practice what sport.
These are all things tennis badly needs as it moves away from a two-decade era dominated by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic on the men’s side and Serena Williams on the women’s side. Having an exciting black American man in the mix for the big headlines would be a great gift for a sport that sometimes struggles to break through to the masses outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
But it will be up to Tiafoe to make that happen. And hopefully he can use this US Open run as inspiration for greater accomplishments rather than a one-off run that will be difficult to replicate in the future.
Truth be told, it’s hard to know what path his career will take. As close as Tiafoe has come to playing for a Grand Slam title, the reality is that he has never come close to a result like this before. As Chris Fowler pointed out on ESPN, the biggest semi-final he’s ever played before Friday took place last fall at the Vienna Erste Bank Open.
This is not an indictment of Tiafoe’s career at all. On Monday, he’ll be a career-high 19th in the world rankings, which is a pretty stunning achievement in any context. But in basketball, football or baseball, being the 19th best player in the world earns you tens of millions of dollars a year and makes you known and respected around the world. In tennis, it earns you a good life without much cultural relevance.
It’s clear from the way he played at this US Open that Tiafoe is capable of more than he’s shown so far in his career, which has previously seen him make just one Grand Slam quarter-final. (2019 Australian Open) and winning an ATP title (2018 Delray Beach). Too often he’s been plagued with inconsistencies, lapses in focus or an inability to close games he should win. But if Tiafoe can process what happened on Friday the right way, a result like this should be jet fuel for his career.
“I just proved that honestly, I mean, obviously I can play with the best, and I’m capable of winning Grand Slams,” he said. “I think everyone knew when I was playing my best what I could do. But you know how close I can get to being one of those guys and doing it consistently. Obviously, throughout my career I’ve been sporadic enough to play well, deviating for a while I’ve always backed myself against the best players in the world I do that on a consistent basis, starting to beat guys more easily Ready to take the next step.
The next step, however, will not necessarily be a Grand Slam title. Tennis is a sport that captures the imagination of the general public four times a year, but the real work is done over the weeks on the circuit.
Tiafoe has shown his high level is good enough to beat Nadal and almost good enough to be in the US Open final, but the key is to build enough winning muscle memory that a race like this doesn’t feel like to a Cinderella story.
With Alcaraz surviving three consecutive matches in five sets and Tiafoe reaching her first Slam semi-final, this US Open seemed to be the first time tennis had gone mainstream outside of the Big Three. If he can capitalize on this remarkable run and continue to produce this top game, Tiafoe has an important role to play in ensuring it stays that way.