Big Foe Brings Big Hope to the Big Apple

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

New York

Folks, there’s hope. 

We’re talking about genuine – this-is-not-a-pipe-dream – authentic red-white-and-blue – hope. 

Frances Tiafoe’s convincing 7-6(3), 7-6(0), 6-4 win over Andrey Rublev turned Flushing Meadows into a frenzy. Housewives from Scarsdale howled. Security workers danced. NBA superstars were elated. A tennis father who’d escaped the civil war in Sierra Leone and worked as a janitor at a tennis center was speechless – was this a dream?

No, this was the Mardi Gras coming to Queens. There hasn’t been an American male winner in this place since Andy Roddick in 2003.

An American man hasn’t reached a Slam semi since 2018. When John Isner did it at Wimbledon, the headline read, “The Long Drought is Over.”

But not so fast. Tennis remained an unrelenting Euro-fest. But today, Big Foe brought big glee to American tennis, that just seven days earlier bid a sorrowful goodbye to its biggest star ever.

What a delight that the appealing, charismatic Tiafoe was emerging to possibly lead American men to the promised land. For years we’d admired his broad shoulders and athleticism. His emergence story was worthy of Hollywood. If there were a Kim Clijsters award for the nicest player on the tour, Frances would be a leading candidate. His smile inspires kids, and lights up intense locker rooms and vast arenas. 

For years he’d been a happy-go-lucky fellow who loved his sweets, practiced poorly and seemed happy just to be on the scene. Playing Federer on Ashe when you’re 19 can go to your head.

Tiafoe told Inside Tennis, “When I came on the scene, flying up the rankings, everything was kind of good. I got a bit complacent in 2019.” 

His coach Wayne Ferreira added, “He wasn’t really professional enough…It seems simple, but he liked a lot of candy and chocolates and cookies. He’d eat at unusual times. He missed breakfast a lot [and didn’t know] when to eat before matches and what to eat after matches.”

Tiafoe did assemble an all-star support team including Ferreira, who has wins over both Sampras and Federer, and Serena’s agent Jill Smoller.

But it wasn’t an instant success. At the beginning of the year, Tiafoe was outside the top 35. He’d won only one small ATP title and never gotten beyond the fourth round of a Slam. This summer, he had five match points against Nick Kyrgios in Washington, but faltered. He blew a big lead over Taylor Fritz in Montreal. Ferreira sensed he would peak in a couple of years. Frances came into New York ranked No. 26.

But, like the hottest player of the summer, Nick Kyrgios, Big Foe had found a secret sauce – maturity. Boring, workmanlike, powerful, underrated maturity, with its empowering sense of perspective, can be a key asset.

In New York his emerging maturity has been on full display – he’s finished matches as if he had ice in his veins. He swept past No. 14 seed Diego Schwartzman. He collected the win of his life, shocking the legendary Rafa, and today he scored his third consecutive straight-set win when he crushed the befuddled Andrey Rublev.

The surprisingly mature Tiafoe, 24, was unfazed by playing in front of 23,771 rabid fans. He rode their wave. They roared, he blasted.

Today, when a key Rublev forehand barely caught the back line, Frances just shrugged it off. He didn’t allow let chords that didn’t go his way to shake him. He played stunning lights-out tennis at crunch time.

Big Foe served with power – 18 aces. His athleticism and speed were weapons. His groundies were on fire – 46 winners. He charged the net and commanded the court. His little flicks, finesse volleys and half-volleys astounded. Rafa’s not the only macho guy who can play with such surgical delicacy.

Tiafoe simply overwhelmed Rublev. He reduced the Russian, who is now 0-6 in Slam quarterfinals, to tears. Frances’s 7-0 second-set tiebreak beatdown was decisive. “Best tiebreaker I’ll ever play…It was honestly a laughable tiebreaker. You can’t make that up. Drop volley behind me. Lob return. He lets it bounce. I come in. Out of nowhere a drop volley again. Inside-out return to win. It was a kick of a breaker.”

And Tiafoe’s US Open run has been a kick too. On Arthur Ashe Stadium, Frances became the first African-American man to reach the US Open semis since Ashe himself in 1972. 

Tiafoe will now face No. 3 seed Carlos Alcaraz who downed Italian Jannick Sinner in a 5:15 five hour marathon that finished at 2:50 AM. It was the latest finish for a US Open and one of the greatest Open matches ever. Tiafoe beat the 19-year-old in their only meeting in 2021 in Barcelona.

Of course, giddy American fans are hoping Frances’s dreamy run will continue. Ferreira was cautious: “It’s a great story. Hopefully there will be a movie about it one day. But he has to win the Grand Slam first. You only get movies if you do well.” 

Tiafoe said, “Two more to go,” and then beamed, “Everyone loves a Cinderella story. I’m just trying to make one.”

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