Andrey Rublev and Frances Tiafoe first looked on as rivals on the courts at Flushing Meadows in 2014. They were both 15 at the time, Tiafoe was born three months later in January 1998, and as two of the youngsters the most fashionable of their time, they knew each other well. They fought to the death in fierce competition in the US Open junior quarter-finals, with Tiafoe toppling the top seed in a tight three-way match. Then they greeted each other in a warm embrace.
While Rublev quickly rose to the top of the game on his transition to the pro tour, Tiafoe’s path was much less clear. His progress has been halted at times by inconsistencies, lack of focus on the pitch and so many tight and brutal losses. But eventually, on the greatest of those same grounds, Tiafoe rose to the pinnacle of the sport in his day.
“Man, this is wild, this is crazy,” Tiafoe said on the court. “I had the greatest victory of my life [two days] ago and came out and got another big win. Andrey is a hell of a player, but supporting him is huge. That’s huge growth. It’s hard to turn the page, but I did it and now I’m in the semi-finals.
He seized this huge opportunity with a flawless display of attacking tennis, serving hugely and constantly advancing. In the process, Tiafoe completely outplayed ninth-seeded Rublev in every decisive moment to reach the US Open semi-final in front of a raucous home crowd, winning 7-6(3), 7-6 (0), 6-4 without losing serve. He will face the winner of the last quarter-final between Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner.
Tiafoe, the 22nd seed in New York, had come into the fourth round of the US Open with plenty of praise for the feat of reaching week two three years in a row. But he didn’t know what to make of the applause; he wanted more than just a fourth-round finish. Despite the difficult task ahead of him, 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal scored the best victory of his career on Monday. Afterwards, he clarified that he had not finished.
Both players arrived at Arthur Ashe Stadium playing extremely sharp tennis, serving well and calmly navigating their service games. Under pressure from the scoreboard, Tiafoe played a poor service game at 5-6 and faced a set point on her serve. Tiafoe landed a first serve and he landed a forehand inside out without a moment’s hesitation, then he held for a first tiebreaker.
Tiafoe upped the pressure with ease, playing a brilliant opening tiebreaker. He served spectacularly, beating his forehand throughout and skillfully executing difficult volleys at the net. On the penultimate point of the tiebreak, Tiafoe dropped a defensive lob from Rublev, which landed unexpectedly. He calmly returned to the baseline at 6-3 and slammed an ace on the outside.
In the second set, Tiafoe had taken her serve to another level. He won 100% of his first-serve points before the tie-break, then he played the tie-break of his life, starting with a sweet forehand volley, then bulldozing it through with a brutal serve, slamming aces and service winners. As he pulled off a winning backhand return to take the set, Tiafoe jumped up in his seat while demanding more from the crowd.
After more than two hours of play, the progressive pressure imposed by Tiafoe on Rublev finally revealed itself. At 3-3, Tiafoe forced a break point, then he slid into the net, calmly executing a forehand volley winner. As Tiafoe celebrated standing still, nodding as he looked around at his adoring crowd, Rublev covered his face with a towel and cried as the opportunity of his life slipped away. Despite a difficult and nervous penultimate service game, Tiafoe served the win at love with his 18th ace.
“I always find a way one way or another on his turf,” he said. “I always find a way. Let’s enjoy this one – we’ve got two more, guys. We have two more.
Of the six male players remaining on Wednesday in one of the most open men’s Grand Slam tournaments in recent memory, five of them have been ranked in the top 10 in their careers, all waiting for such an opportunity. Tiafoe was the odd one out, having reached a career-best 24 just a month ago. But his status only makes him more dangerous, affording him a level of freedom that others like Rublev may not have.
“I still don’t feel any pressure,” Tiafoe said Monday. “I always feel like I’m not supposed to do anything. I’m just here to play good tennis and enjoy it. I have fun there, as you can see.
From her formative years playing tennis in Maryland at College Park alongside her twin brother and his Sierra Leonean family, Tiafoe has always had the ingredients to achieve something big. He’s an incredible athlete with an efficient serve and a chaotic all-court attacking style that has become increasingly clear in his mind. But sometimes his forehand let him down, he wasn’t organized enough behind the scenes, and he struggled to wrap up his many great performances on big stages.
His progress has been gradual and perhaps not as rapid as he would have liked, but it has been steady and clear for some time. A self-proclaimed clumsy kid with a smile always on his face away from the courts, it sometimes seemed like he was still learning to play with a killer instinct. Now he does.
Frances Tiafoe rides over Andrey Rublev to reach US Open semis