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Frances Tiafoe backs up Nadal stunner with Rublev victory to reach milestone US Open semifinal
Buoyed by the love he felt in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Tiafoe soared to a new peak against Andrey Rublev, and became the first U.S. man to make a US Open semifinal in 16 years.
Published Sep 08, 2022
FLASHBACK: Tennis Channel Live discusses Tiafoe defeating Nadal in the fourth round of the 2022 US Open
NEW YORK—If you’ve ever wondered what peak Frances Tiafoe would look like, wonder no more. He reached it during the second-set tiebreaker in his 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4 win over Andrey Rublev at the US Open on Wednesday.
Tiafoe had won the first set, but the American and the Russian were still neck and neck. After 24 games, neither had been broken. That’s when Tiafoe, buoyed by the buzz he could hear and the love he could feel in Arthur Ashe Stadium, started to soar.
He opened the breaker with a 131 m.p.h. service winner. He followed that with a well-angled crosscourt backhand that forced an error from Rublev. Next came a delicate half-volley drop shot that crept over the net by an inch and died. After that, he fired two aces, one of them 136 m.p.h., the other 134. Then there was a perfect backhand drop volley to reach set point. And just for variety’s sake, he closed it with a bullet backhand return winner that Rublev never had time to move for.
7-0. By the end, Tiafoe wasn’t even bothering to pose or flex or stomp for the crowd anymore. He was just laughing.
“It was honestly a laughable tiebreaker," he said. “You can’t make that up."
The 24-year-old has surely dreamed of doing great things in Ashe. But did he dream of anything as flawless and electrifying as those seven points? Did he dream of beating Rafael Nadal there, and following it up two days later with a performance nearly as good, to become the first U.S. man to reach the semifinals of the US Open since Andy Roddick did it 16 ridiculously long years ago?
Tiafoe has always been one of the sport’s fastest players and most creative talents. But against Rublev you could see all of that speed, and all of that creativity, working in tandem like they never have before.
Rublev was the player ranked 15 spots higher, but Tiafoe was the one who was attacking second serves and darting to the net. He was the one who was constructing points, moving Rublev from one side to the other, and giving him no space to hit his passing shots into. He was the one trying shoe-top drop volleys in tiebreakers and making them. He was the one who had Rublev tearing his hair out in disbelief.
“That was a really good performance,” Tiafoe said. “Played well, served well. Yeah, really aggressive. It was a pretty clean performance.”
“I felt way [more] comfortable coming out today than when I was playing Rafa,” he added. “Like, uphill battle. ‘Geez, can I get this done?’ Today I felt really comfortable and it showed in my performance."
Tiafoe’s early history at the JTCC in College Park, MD, is well documented. But it has also been an uphill journey with his current coach, Wayne Ferreira. Today Ferreira said that when they started working together two years ago, they had to start at square one, with his practice habits, his investment in his career, and especially his diet.
“Food intake was terrible at the beginning,” said Ferreira, a former Top 10 player from South Africa. “He liked a lot of candy and chocolates and cookies. The effort on the practices and on the court wasn’t good enough.”
“It’s taken time for us to get gradually to where we are today.”
Ferreira, who describes Tiafoe as “truly special” and possessed of a “very great heart,” said that they made important strides with his ball-striking earlier this year. Still, the mental side of his game hadn’t caught up. This summer, Tiafoe lost to Nick Kyrgios after having match points, and to Taylor Fritz after being up 4-0 in the third set.
“We’ve been working a lot in the last couple of months on the mental side,” Ferreira said. “About trying to deal with the big, important situations. He’s achieved them exceptionally well.”
We’ve been working a lot in the last couple of months on the mental side, about trying to deal with the big, important situations. He’s achieved them exceptionally well. Wayne Ferreira, coach of Frances Tiafoe
With Tiafoe, it always helps to come to New York. The bigger the crowd, the better. For him, it’s also a matter of pride that someone whose family wasn’t part of the tennis world gets so much support from so many people in it.
“It makes me feel good when people appreciate how hard you’re trying out there and appreciate good tennis, especially where I came from,” he said. “To see how many people I can get behind me. Means a lot.”
Now Tiafoe is taking the initiative in the important moments. So far at the Open, he’s 6-0 in tiebreakers, and he has only dropped one set—to Nadal—in five rounds. Today, when Tiafoe broke Rublev to go up 4-3 in the third set, nerves suddenly struck, and he went down break point. In the past, that might have been the first signal of a downward spiral. This time, he went on the attack immediately, and finished the point with the deftest of drop volleys—it was risky, but Tiafoe made it look easy.
“Right now I’m just really obsessed with tennis, and I want to see how far I can go with this thing,” Tiafoe said.
Asked what he thought of his semifinal, which will be against one of two top young players, Jannik Sinner or Carlos Alcaraz, Tiafoe sounded as calm and confident as he was on court.
“I’ll be ready for either.”