Carlos Breathes Fire – Foe Falls

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

Oh, how happy American tennis would have been if Frances Tiafoe had become the first American to reach the US Open final since Andy Roddick in 2006. How wonderful it would have been if, on Arthur Ashe Stadium, he had become the first Black man to win the Open since Ashe himself. 

Junior Tennis Champions Center founder Ray Benton, who’s known Tiafoe all his life, said, “Frances’s best quality is his love of people. He has such a generosity of spirit. He wants people to be happy.” 

Tonight fans were thrilled with a US Open semi between two of the game’s most charismatic players. “Legends are being made by these kids,” John McEnroe said. Early in a magical match, Tiafoe showed why he’s the ATP’s equivalent of Ons Jabeur, the Minister of Happiness. “It’s like a battle of big grinners,” said Chris McKendry. Broadcaster Mark Brown noted, “The shotmaking astounded. It’s absolute insanity out there,. We’ve seen unbelievable athleticism and running. It has been one incredible shot after another..” 

In the opening set, Carlos hit four winners on the line, won a scramble point that defied all reason, and seemed unfazed when Michelle Obama got the most thunderous celebrity reception of the Open. 

But Alcaraz fell behind in the opening set tiebreak. He did manage to save four set points in the tiebreak but then hit an anti-climatic double fault and dropped the set. Not only did Tiafoe tie Pete Sampras’s US Open record of seven straight tiebreaks, he brought happiness to his 23,000 or so fans who were on hand, along with rocker Jon Bon Jovi and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Tiafoe had been clutch throughout the Open, especially in his first ever Big 3 win, a fourth-round victory over Rafa. But there are major differences between the resume of Frances, the No. 24 player in the world, and the bound-for-glory Spanish wonder, who is No. 3. Tiafoe has won only one tournament, and he had not reached a semi in a Masters 1000 or a Slam before this year’s Open. Boy Carlos had a deep run at last year’s US Open and then went on to win in Rio, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid.

In an astonishing physical display, Alcaraz shrugged off the inconvenient fact that he’d just played two epic five-set matches that had stretched deep into the New York night. Brad Gilbert said his quarterfinal win over Jannik Sinner was the best non-Big 3 match he’d ever seen. The battle that ended at 2:50 AM set a record for late night matches and Alcaraz didn’t leave the site until 5 am. 

Sure, the kid’s just 19, but certainly he’d be drained. Instead, he shocked America’s former First Lady and the former First Lady of American tennis, ex-USTA president Katrina Adams, as he took a 2-sets-to-1 lead.

Now surely Tiafoe’s fate was sealed. But this man delivers excitement like Amazon delivers packages. Tiafoe stepped up, took chances and hit an inspired return off of a 126-mph serve, roared to the crowd and broke back, to get the fourth set on serve, 2-1. Then Carlos broke, and then Frances, riding the energy of the crowd, broke again. American flags fluttered, as fans chanted, “Let’s go, Frances!”

In a match filled with surges, stunning thrusts and counterattacks, there were four breaks in the fourth set until, at the 3:17 mark of the match, the Spaniard gained a match point. But Tiafoe, playing clutch, hit a drop shot winner off an Alcaraz drop shot and soon forced a fourth-set tie break. “Emotions were flying 1,000 mph,” Frances later reported..

Too bad for Americans that tennis isn’t simply a matter of tiebreaks. Tiafoe won his eighth straight tiebreak, setting a new Open record. But then, in the first game of the fifth set, he blinked. That’s a problem in tennis. 

Alcaraz later noted, “There’s no time to be tired for a semifinal in a major.” No kidding. Carlos broke and again showed his brilliance. Already an athletic master, he displayed his mix of assets: speed, anticipation, power, reared-on-clay-touch, fearlessness, self-belief and, perhaps most of all, resilience.

Tiafoe’s serve went away, his energy waned. There was no escape from Alcaraz, who fell to the court spreadeagle on his back as he won 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-3.

Yes, a long reigning Queen has left us, but dare we note that in our small kingdom of tennis a young, dashing king with a smile and a serve is emerging? The youngest Grand Slam semifinalist since Rafa in 2005 achieved what only Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi had ever done. He won three five-set matches in a row en route to the Open final. So what that his fourth-round match ended at 2:13 AM and his win over Jannik Sinner in the quarters ended later (2:50 AM) than any other match in Open history?

In Sunday’s final, the Spaniard will face the pride of Norway. The No. 5 seed Casper Ruud, who is 24 and reached this year’s French Open final, is hoping to become the third Scandinavian to win the Open. The final will be a unique winner-take-all affair. Whoever prevails will be the first player outside the Big 3 to win a Slam this year and will become No. 1 in the world.

Reflecting on the day, John McEnroe commented, “Carlos is a generational talent. Potentially he’s among the likes of Nadal and Djokovic…This is one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen on a tennis court.”

For his part, a tearful Tiafoe told the throng, “I gave everything I had tonight and for the last two weeks…I feel like I let you guys down…[But] I’m going to come back and I will win this thing one day. I’m sorry, guys.”

When Inside Tennis asked Frances to sum up his glorious run in just a phrase or two, he replied, “Craziest two weeks of my life…Stuff you dream about. I fell a little short. But getting to the fourth round three years in a row, that’s already a good accomplishment. Being the only player to beat Rafa in a Slam this year – the year he’s had. Him being in the race to be No. 1 in the world, shutting that down…that was crazy.

“Being able to back it up, too…That was a lot of growth…And playing Andrey and beating him, then playing an unbelievable match tonight. Crazy two weeks. I really need to soak it in.”

And tennis needs to soak in Big Foe’s surge in the Big Apple and how a cadre of young players are taking our game to a whole new stratospheric level.

THE BUZZ

A QUEEN IS REMEMBERED: From Park Avenue in Manhattan to Maspeth in Queens, flags flew at half mast. The US Open had a moment of silence for the Queen. British players wore black armbands. Queen Elizabeth was fondly recalled for her dignity, her dedication, her service and her thick skin. She was the subject of many a joke and much sarcasm. At Wimbledon, snarky London reporters and players couldn’t resist taking their shots at the beloved royal. When Elizabeth came to Wimbledon in 2010, Andy Roddick joked, “Met the queen today. She said, ‘I love you in all the American pie movies.’”

Amy Jenkins claimed, “The feeling in the air here at Wimbledon is one of absolute devotion. We may as well have been wearing animal skins while making obeisance at sunrise to some kind of stone goddess.” Humorist Jan Moir claimed, “The Queen and I have a lot in common…She lives with a grumpy old moaner who’s always putting his foot in it. I’ve got one of those at home, too. She likes lots of horses and has her face on a stamp. I’ve got lots of stamps and a face like a horse.” Federer joked that the Queen told him he “should hit more backhands down the line.”

A MOMENT IN TENNIS TIME: Pat McEnroe captured a long awaited moment in men’s tennis. He said, “You are watching the game changing in front of your eyes – the landscape, the shot-making and the speed.”

YOU KNOW YOU ARE IN NEW YORK: A restaurant near Times Square boasts, “No nutritional value added to any of our food.”…There’s a restaurant called Cafe Grumpy that serves a large clientele…The Greek food at Uncle Gussy’s food truck draws a long line of 18 patrons at lunch time…An open air sightseeing bus is packed at 10 pm… There are 40 bags of garbage on the street by your hotel… A huge billboard has a massive headline that reads, “Cop Got Shot” and wants people to send them tips about police who have been hurt. 

BRAINIEST COMMENT OF THE OPEN: While reflecting on the growth of Nick Kyrgios, Alexandra Stevenson said, “I hear men get their brains at 28.”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Reportedly, Federer’s long rehab from his knee injury has had another setback and it’s possible that he may not play the Laver Cup in London, September 23-25…Last year’s US Open winner, Emma Radacanu, who lost in the first round this year, will be losing 2,040 ranking points and drop to around No. 85. 

QUOTEBOOK: 

“Even when it’s quiet, it’s loud.” – John McEnroe on Ashe Stadium

“My narrative was played and is no longer relevant.” – Andrea Petkovic, who retired after losing in the first round. 

NO FISH AT DAVIS CUP: Davis Cup Captain Mardy Fish was hit with Covid. Bob Bryan will replace him when America, led by Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, faces a tall task. They play Britain in Glasgow on Sept. 16-18. The Brits will be led by Scot Andy Murray and No. 9 Cam Norrie. 

DOUBLES WATCH: Northern Californian Rajeev Ram and his British partner Joe Salisbury defended their US Open doubles title by downing Brit Neil Skupski and Holland’s Wesley Koolhof. It was Ram’s third men’s doubles Grand Slam title. The 38-year-old, who often works out at the Orinda Country Club in California with Tyler Browne, also has two mixed doubles titles and could well play against his English doubles partner Salisbury when the US travels to Scotland for Davis Cup right after the US Open…New mom Taylor Townsend and Coco Gauff’s former doubles partner Caty McNally are through to the finals, where they’ll face Katarina Siniakova and Barbara Krejcikova. The Czechs have won five Slam titles but they’ve never won in New York.

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