Roger Federer wins but Frances Tiafoe’s game is fits for the king

The drama grew more compelling with each of the 56 errors Roger Federer committed and each pushback mounted by 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe. Straining and flailing, Federer showed only occasional signs of his usual grace in their first-round match Tuesday night at the U.S. Open. Tiafoe pushed the pace and had 36-year-old Federer on the ropes, great theater playing out on the slow hard court of Arthur Ashe Stadium instead of on Broadway.

It took three match points for Federer, physically drained but still wily, to clinch a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 victory. “In the fifth set I got my energy back,” Federer said. “It was play to win, don’t play just to hope that he will miss.”

It was a coming-of-age moment for Tiafoe, who is the son of immigrants and learned to play at the Maryland tennis club where his father was a custodian. It also hinted at advancing age for 19-time Grand Slam winner Federer, who missed last year’s Open because of knee problems and has had back woes that compromised his preparation. Yet, he will advance and Tiafoe will balance disappointment against well-earned pride after coming so close to the victory of his life.

“I want to win matches like this,” said Tiafoe, ranked No. 70 in the world. “For a while I feel like I can play against anyone in the world. Now, it’s a matter of finishing these types of matches.”

Federer, who didn’t lose a set in winning at Wimbledon, blamed his slow start on being cautious about pushing his back too strenuously. But he was undermined by other flaws. “I lost my footing, I was misjudging distances.”

Tiafoe pushed as hard as he could, breaking Federer’s serve to cut the Swiss star’s lead to 5-4 in the fifth set. “He is the greatest,” said Tiafoe, who said he appreciated the words of encouragement Federer spoke as they left the court. “It means a lot that he said that to me, that he thinks I have a future.”

Tiafoe’s time hasn’t come quite yet. And Federer might still have another Grand Slam victory or two in his power. “I really enjoyed myself even though maybe I also was tired and nervous at the end,” he said. “It was very cool to be part of that match.”

Pliskova wins easily

Karolina Pliskova learned that being ranked No. 1 in the world has its privileges, including playing on premier courts. At the U.S. Open that means Ashe Stadium, the only court with a retractable roof. Daylong rain caused cancellations elsewhere but closing the roof between sets allowed Pliskova to complete a 6-2, 6-1 rout of Magda Linette of Poland.

“Happy I got the match done quickly and don’t have to wait because the weather is not looking great,” said Plis-kova, who lost the 2016 final to Angelique Kerber. “It’s always a big help when you can leave fast from the club.”

Noise about noise

No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal wore down Dusan Lajovic of Serbia 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2 but said his victory was made more difficult by high noise levels at Ashe Stadium, a complaint that surfaced last year and led organizers to add sound-muffling materials around air conditioning units. “Today, under the roof was too much. Too much noise, no?” Nadal said. “I was not able to hear the ball when you are hitting. I understand it’s a show, at the end of the day, and I enjoy that. I feel part of this, of course, but under the roof we need to be a little bit more strict about the noise, in my opinion.”

No. 15 Madison Keys beat Elise Mertens of Belgium 6-3, 7-6 (6) and called Ashe “the loudest court I’ve ever played on in my life.” . . . No. 12 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, this year’s French Open winner, defeated Lara Arruabarrena of Spain 6-2, 1-6, 6-1 in a match that began outdoors but finished at Ashe Stadium.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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