Column: Frances Tiafoe believes and just keeps on winning at U.S. Open
The bracelet isn’t shiny. It isn’t dripping with gold or diamonds.
Still, it’s precious to Frances Tiafoe because it motivates him to continue an incredible journey that began when he was a child and often slept in a storeroom at the tennis facility his father helped construct. Now 24, he’s conquering the tennis world one powerful serve, clever volley and exhilarating win at a time.
The word “Believe” is imprinted in white block letters on one side of the bracelet’s black band. “Why Not Me” is on the opposite side. Those words hit home for him Wednesday after he crafted a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4 victory over Russian Andrey Rublev to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the first time in his ascendant career.
“Anything just to give you a little inspiration,” Tiafoe said after he became the first American man to advance to the semis at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick reached the final in 2006. “Look at that: Yeah, why not me? You put the time in, so why not me?
“Believe in yourself, it’s so big. You have to believe in yourself before anybody else does.”
Frances Tiafoe ended Rafael Nadal’s 22-match winning streak at Grand Slam tournaments by beating the 22-time major champion at the U.S. Open.
The bracelet was one of several he received from Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy, part owner and a managing partner of the company that sells them, San Diego-based Deuce Brand. The “Believe” message resonated with Tiafoe because of his experiences in a sport he couldn’t have afforded to play if his father, an immigrant from the African nation of Sierra Leone, hadn’t become the custodian at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md.
Tiafoe reached out to Handy and Deuce after seeing bracelets with different messages, including a “Be your own GOAT” version that Handy created. Handy happily obliged, and he gushed over Tiafoe’s stunning fourth-round win over world No. 2 Rafael Nadal on Monday.
“I’m a big fan of that young fellow. I’m really trying to follow his journey,” Handy said from Australia, where he’s conducting clinics for kids and coaches.
“When you reach that apex as an athlete, when you’re playing against one of the best to ever play, you have to have that sense of confidence in yourself. ‘I can do it. Why can’t I do it?’ That’s something that’s dear to his heart and it showed in his victory the other night.”
Wayne Ferreira, a former tour player who became Tiafoe’s coach early in 2020 and persuaded him that eating less candy and cake would lead to more victories, said Tiafoe’s life story should be made into a movie. “But he has to win the Grand Slam first. You only get movies if you do well,” Ferreira said.
And there’s the catch. No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Roddick triumphed at Flushing Meadows in 2003. Tiafoe will face the winner of the last quarterfinal, involving No. 11 Jannik Sinner and No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz, on Friday for a place in Sunday’s final and a chance to end that drought. In the other semi, No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway will face No. 27 Karen Khachanov of Russia.
Roddick was at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday while Tiafoe, seeded No. 22, backed up that momentous victory over Nadal by firing 18 aces against Rublev. His fastest serve was 137 mph and his first serves averaged 121.9 mph. Tiafoe hit 47 winners to 31 by Rublev, who was seeded No. 9 in a field that lacked Roger Federer (knee surgery) and Novak Djokovic (banned from entering the U.S. because he’s not vaccinated against COVID) and lost Nadal, No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas early.
Tiafoe’s dominance in wrapping up the second set triggered roars from the crowd. “Best tiebreaker I will ever play,” said Tiafoe, who sprinted to his bench after he hit a winner off Rublev’s second serve and improved to 6-0 in tiebreaks here.
Rublev saved two break points in the third game of the third set but couldn’t hold Tiafoe back for long. Tiafoe went up a break at 4-3 and hit 136 mph in winning his next service game, which he ended with an ace. When it was over, on a 123 mph ace, Tiafoe screamed to the heavens — or the closed stadium roof — before running to the sideline to embrace his supporters.
“I just love playing in front of packed people. I love to show the world what I can do,” he said. “Then it makes me feel good when people appreciate how hard you’re trying out there and appreciate good tennis, especially where I came from.”
Coco Gauff’s U.S. Open run was a success, but the 18-year-old Floridian was ousted with a 6-3, 6-4 loss to Caroline Garcia in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
Jessica Pegula of Buffalo, N.Y., the lone American woman remaining after Coco Gauff’s quarterfinal loss on Tuesday, was eliminated by world No. 1 Iga Swiatek of Poland, who had an uneven performance but pulled out a 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory. French Open champion Swiatek, who had a 37-match win streak earlier this year, will face No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka in Thursday’s second semifinal. No. 5 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia will face No. 17 Caroline Garcia of France in the first semi.
Tiafoe is enjoying the attention he has been getting, but he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from — or where he wants to go.
“Every time I win, I just want to inspire a bunch of people to just know that you can, I mean, anything is possible. For me to do this and talk about how I feel about being in the U.S. Open from my come-up is crazy,” he said.
It’s not so crazy anymore. Why not him?
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