Big Foe, Big Win and the Dawning of a New Era

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

New York

In tennis, in boxing, in many sports and much of life you have to have a one-two punch. And within 21 hours the US Open gave us a stunning one-two punch.

The once seemingly down and out rebel from Down Under, Nick Kyrgios, soared on Ashe Stadium and dismissed Daniil Medvedev, the defending US Open Champion and No. 1 player in the world. It was a stunning display, but may prove to be less impactful than Frances Tiafoe’s knock-your-socks-off 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 stunner over Rafa Nadal. 

The Spaniard has had many a struggle this year, although he did collect the Australian and French Open crowns. 

His comeback win in Melbourne was one for the ages. His 14th Paris triumph came with one of his feet numbed. Then he had to withdraw from Wimbledon, had a surgical procedure, played poorly in his one mid-summer match and had struggled at the US Open, where he wavered against lesser players, bashed himself in the nose with his racket and worried mightily about his pregnant wife, who was in a Mallorca hospital.

But this downswing is modest compared to the most perplexing slump in the history of American tennis. 

We all know too well that a US man hasn’t won since Andy Roddick in 2003. An American reaching a Slam quarterfinal has become a cause for celebration. 

Yes, the US has a splendid cadre of 13 players in the top 100 – but not one is in the top 10. Our best guy, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Taylor Fritz, crashed out in the first round at the Open, and the only man left standing at Flushing was Frances Tiafoe.

Tiafoe recently reflected on the woes of US men’s tennis, saying, “We don’t have an American problem, we have a Big Four problem.” Since 2001 only five Americans had wins over the Big 3 in Slams – Andre Agassi, Paul Goldstein, James Blake, Sam Querrey and Andy Roddick (who did it twice).

And now American men’s tennis seemed on the brink of another unhappy result. Only Frances was left holding the fort. Yes, he had the No. 1 smile in tennis. And when it came to charisma he was in the ATP top 5. His out-of-Sierra Leone backstory inspires, and he’s long been a sparkling presence in the locker room. But, for all his considerable talent, he was only ranked No. 26 and was 2-13 against top 5 players.

His best run at a Slam was reaching the Aussie Open quarterfinal three years ago. He’d never gotten past the fourth round in New York. He’s such a great athlete, but was he really going for it on all fronts? Grim, military-style discipline, focus and a severe game face weren’t his thing. He admitted he had been mentally weak. 

Now he’d face the No. 2 seed, Rafa Nadal, whom he’d never beaten, and who hadn’t lost a Grand Slam match all year. In the past, Frances confided to ESPN, his mindset would have been that he was just happy to be there – “Oh, it’s cool to play Nadal.” But, like Kyrgios, things have been changing. Frances hired a great team, including coach Wayne Ferreira, he committed to fitness, and he’s been pushed by the success of other young Americans and a generation of relatively new ATP players, from Carlos Alcaraz to Kyrgios. “We piggyback with each other,” said Frances. His mindset now is, “Let’s walk in and win and stop messing around.” 

After a gutsy third-round triumph against Diego Schwartzman, Frances was defiant. “I’m definitely going to go after Rafa,” he said – and so he did. Flashing his appealing athleticism, serving big, taking the ball early, spanking forehand winners and hitting short balls to Rafa’s backhand, he captured the first set 6-4, delighting the packed stadium. 

But then Tiafoe played a loose game deep into the second set and even let a Nadal backhand go without trying to hit it. Soon Rafa collected the second set 6-4.

Now, certainly, the Spaniard, who’d  reached the quarterfinals in the last 17 majors he’d played, would come back and prevail. But in the seventh game of the third set the Maryland native hit a great dropshot, broke Nadal, sprinted to his chair and then soon claimed the set.  

In the fourth set, Tiafoe’s concentration seemed to close down when the Ashe Stadium roof closed. He lost his serve as Nadal claimed a 3-1 lead. Frances said later that his legs felt like cement. But he battled back, breaking Nadal three times and winning five games in a row to take the decisive set 6-4 as he became the youngest American quarterfinalist at the Open since Roddick. 

For the first time since 2001, both of the top two men’s seeds are out of the US Open and for the first time since 2003 there will be no Rafa, Roger, Novak or Serena in a Slam quarterfinal.

After his win, Frances was moved to tears. He said the match will change his life.

For his part, Rafa explained, “I played a bad match and he played a good match…Tennis is a sport of position…[and] if not, you need to be very, very quick and very young. I am not in that moment anymore…I faced a player that was better than me. And that’s why I am having a plane back home…I didn’t push him enough to create doubts…I need to go back. I need to fix things in my life…I don’t know when I’m going to come back.”

Not surprisingly, Tiafoe was elated. He told the media, “It was definitely one hell of a performance…I just came out and believed…I’m a different person now, a different player. I went out there trying to get a W.”

Frances conceded that, when it came to the Big 3, he wondered, “Am I ever going to be able to say I beat one of them? Today I was like, no, I’m going to do that…It’s something to tell the kids, the grandkids.” He joked, “Hopefully I never play Rafa again.”

Frances again told the poignant story of how Maryland’s Junior Tennis Champions Center had been so supportive of him. He was thrilled to get a tweet from Lebron James and said he was no longer under the radar. He conceded there had been a ton of expectations of him, but that he was trying to have fun and “not trying to prove anything to anyone but myself…I know what I’m capable of doing these next couple of matches.”

As for tennis these days, he said, “There’s a ton of guys playing great tennis. I don’t think it will be a Big 3. It will be like a big 12. It’s cool to see a new era.”

And it will be cool to see just how far “Big Foe” can go and if American men, who have now reached the quarterfinals in back-to-back Slams, can once again excel at the very top.

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