Nearly every year now, it seems, the U.S. Open becomes a life-changing event.
Last year a British teenager, a few months removed from her high school graduation, showed up in New York for the qualifying tournament in late August. Three weeks later, Emma Raducanu left the city as a Grand Slam champion and global sensation.
This time around, Frances Tiafoe, an electric 24-year-old who has long been filled with unrealized upside, took the journey from virtual unknown to a player who could draw the former first lady Michelle Obama and the actor Jamie Foxx out to watch him.
Tiafoe brought his remarkable story: He is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, his father a maintenance worker at a local tennis center, where coaches discovered his little boy hitting balls against a wall. Now Tiafoe was bidding to become the first American man since Andy Roddick to make the U.S. Open final. Already he was the first American man to make the semifinals of this tournament in 16 years.
Another two wins would have been ground-shifting for the sport in America, akin to Serena Williams’s first Grand Slam title at this tournament 23 years ago, and coming a little more than a week after Williams played what was likely her last match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, in front of a screaming throng of nearly 24,000 fans.
“I wanted to be here on Sunday holding the cup,” Tiafoe said. “I had it in my head.”
But Tiafoe ran into Carlos Alcaraz on Friday night, the 19-year-old sensation from Spain who now seems poised to be the one to have his life changed by the U.S. Open. Alcaraz, who somehow found enough reserves to come back after winning a quarterfinal match that lasted more than five hours and didn’t end until nearly 3 a.m. Thursday, proved to be too much for Tiafoe, prevailing in five sets, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3.
“Amazing to be able to fight for big things,” Alcaraz said.
It took nearly everything Alcaraz had. He had played roughly 10 hours of tennis in his previous two matches, which included 10 grueling sets. Alcaraz skipped practice altogether Thursday, and hit for just 30 minutes before the match Friday.
Whatever psychic and physical energy that saved, he needed all of it for a battle that had him down, then even, then coasting, then clawed back by an opponent desperate not to cede the stage. Then in the last set he was up once more, and then all even again.
The crowd rode every wave, with the match sounding like a New York Rangers hockey game as fans bellowed “Let’s go, Tiafoe!” — and then shifting to something like a soccer match in Madrid, as choruses of “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé” rang through the stands, only to turn back into a Rangers game again.
When it was finally finished, just before midnight, 4 hours 18 minutes after it began, Alcaraz had become the first teenage man to reach a Grand Slam final since Rafael Nadal won his first French Open in 2005. That was the first of 22 Nadal has captured in his career. If Alcaraz beats Casper Ruud of Norway on Sunday, he will rise to No. 1 in the world rankings, and who knows how many more Grand Slams he will win.
He finished off Tiafoe with a magical lob to get to triple match point, and he needed all three, with Tiafoe finally netting one last backhand. Tiafoe and Alcaraz hugged in the middle of the court, and when they separated, Alcaraz pointed at Tiafoe, urging the fans to let him hear them one last time.
“I gave it everything I had,” Tiafoe said, before telling Alcaraz what a privilege it had been to share this stage with him. Then he pledged to come back and beat him here one day and win this thing. He pointed to the former first lady on the way out.
Tiafoe got off to a shaky start, missing early on his dangerous first serve and lofting his second serve as slowly as 75 miles per hour.
Fortunately for Tiafoe, he was facing an opponent who looked like he had barely rested after his marathon quarterfinal match. Alcaraz struggled to find his rhythm early on and couldn’t take advantage of Tiafoe’s nerves.
Slowly, both players settled in. After a half-hour, they were doing what they do best. Tiafoe banged away with his serve and met every bit of Alcaraz’s power. Alcaraz began to chase down balls that most players would not bother with, but when he arrived he was rarely in position to do much with them. Tiafoe got his first chance to win the set while leading 6-5, with Alcaraz serving, and then earned four more chances when the set moved to a tiebreaker.
On the fifth set point, Alcaraz finally cracked, double-faulting. Tiafoe started for his chair, then paused to look at the fans and soak in the love they were giving him. As he got to his chair, he glanced up at himself on the big screen at the top of the stadium and nodded.
Tiafoe had just won his 16th set out of 17 he had played in the tournament. Facing an opponent running on fumes who had just played for more than an hour and had nothing to show for it, he had every reason to believe his journey had a long way to go.
Alcaraz, though, is different than anyone Tiafoe had faced during the first 10 days of the tournament, even last Monday, when he became the first American born after 1989 to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam. Nadal had played little since tearing an abdominal muscle at Wimbledon and could not summon his usual power and stamina.
From the start, so many of Alcaraz’s balls found the outside edges of the sidelines and the back of the baseline, leaving Tiafoe wondering if the electronic line-calling machine could possibly be right. Like a pitcher with late movement on his fastball, Alcaraz hit shots that looked like they would sail wide and long but suddenly darted into a corner.
Balls that don’t come back against other players come back when Alcaraz is on the other side of the net. There is not an inch of the court that seems out of his reach. No point is finished until a ball has bounced twice or has crashed into the back wall. He hits searing winners while running away from the net. A twist of his hips, a flick of his wrist, and the ball is sailing past.
If Tiafoe’s story is all about kismet, Alcaraz’s has seemed preordained. His grandfather owns a tennis club and he has long trained with the former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Tiafoe stayed even with Alcaraz through the first five games of the second set, but trouble arrived when he was serving at 2-3. That’s when Alcaraz showed that if he can stay healthy, he could have a career as good as anyone who has ever played the game.
He earned his chance to break Tiafoe’s serve for the first time all night, running down a ball deep in the backhand corner and catching up with a drop shot close to the net. With a chance to put away the point, Tiafoe sent it long, then did it once more on the next point.
Tiafoe would have chances to get back into the set twice more, but Alcaraz shut the door both times, the first by mixing slices and topspin through a long rally, the second with a serve Tiafoe could not get back. By the end of the set, Tiafoe was showing his first signs of frustration, swatting his racket at the air, as though he knew what was about to come.
What came next was ugly. The first two sets had lasted 109 minutes. The third one was over in 33. Alcaraz came out on fire, and Tiafoe came out as a shadow of the player he was in the first set when he grabbed the early lead.
Alcaraz won 12 of the first 13 points, building a 3-0 lead and breaking Tiafoe’s serve three times as he rolled to a two-sets-to-one advantage.
By the end of the set, Tiafoe looked lost, double-faulting, committing error after error, unable to get his feet behind the ball and set up to swing. Alcaraz beat him every which way, pushing him deep into the backcourt, then drawing him up to the net and passing him, as he seized control of a match that seemed like it would be over very soon.
But then Tiafoe became someone Alcaraz had not yet faced — a hometown favorite with more than 20,000 friends ready to help him climb back from the brink.
And he did, pulling even at 3-3 and saving a match point at 4-5 by chasing down a drop shot that had the former first lady up out of her seat and urging him on.
He did as he was told, pushing the set to a tiebreaker, where he cranked up his serve and finally got Alcaraz to make enough mistakes to force the deciding set. Tiafoe’s performance in tiebreakers, which had been 6-0 at the start of the night, was now 8-0, a record at the U.S. Open.
His eyes wide, he nodded up at those thousands of new buddies he had made. This journey was nearly over, but not quite yet.
Maybe, though, it’s part of a much larger journey that Tiafoe is on. He has already come so far.