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Frances Tiafoe has the U.S. Open crowd — and LeBron James — on his side

The U.S. Open crowd has been behind Frances Tiafoe as he has made his run to the quarterfinals. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — As is the case with most young athletes, one of the first things Frances Tiafoe did upon returning to the locker room after his blockbuster upset of Rafael Nadal on Monday was check his phone. What he saw sent his already swirling emotions soaring even higher.

LeBron James had tweeted about him: “CONGRATS Young King!!! You earned it!”

“Bro, I was going craaaazy,” Tiafoe said, a grin engulfing his face. “I mean, that’s my guy! To see him post that, I was like, ‘Do I retweet it as soon as he sent it?!’ I was like: ‘You know what? I’m going to be cool and then act like I didn’t see it and then retweet it three hours later.’ ”

Frances Tiafoe beats Rafael Nadal to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals

Tiafoe did exactly that, playing it cool before thanking James and promising he has more work to do. But the NBA megastar was hardly the only athlete to shout out Tiafoe on Monday — the four-set victory that sent him to the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the first time drew frenzied reaction from around the sports world.

None were more pleased than the 24-year-old’s fellow American tennis players, past and present.

Tiafoe is the youngest American man to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open since Andy Roddick did so in 2006, also at 24. Beyond Tiafoe’s allure as a next great American player, his story makes him easy to root for to many.

Tiafoe is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. His father, Frances Sr., worked as a maintenance man at College Park’s Junior Tennis Champions Center, where Tiafoe and his twin brother learned to play. His mother, Alphina, worked night shifts as a licensed practical nurse. Tennis was meant to be a pathway to college, which Tiafoe’s parents otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford without a scholarship.

His parents watched in person Monday.

“To see them experience me beat Rafa Nadal — they’ve seen me have big wins, but to beat those Mount Rushmore guys, for them, I can’t imagine what was going through their heads,” Tiafoe said. “Yeah, I mean, they’re going to remember today for the rest of their lives.”

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Tiafoe has a fighting chance at moving into the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career, and perhaps beyond. On Wednesday, he’ll face No. 9 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia, against whom he holds a 1-1 record.

The tournament will crown a first-time major champion on the men’s side for the third year in a row.

The draw is more open than it has been since the era of the Big Three began, with 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer skipping his fifth consecutive major — and third straight U.S. Open — as he recovers from knee surgery.

Novak Djokovic, who has 21 Grand Slam trophies, announced his withdrawal before the tournament. Djokovic said after winning Wimbledon that he would not be getting a coronavirus vaccine; the United States requires proof of vaccination for nonimmigrant noncitizens to enter the country.

Beyond the absence of those titans, this U.S. Open is the first since 2000 in which neither of the men’s top two seeds reached the quarterfinals. Nick Kyrgios knocked out No. 1 seed and reigning champion Daniil Medvedev in the round of 16 on Sunday, and Nadal was seeded second.

That means a lot of eyes will be on Tiafoe as he takes on Rublev — including some of Tiafoe’s heroes.

NBA agent Rich Paul, who represents James, sent Tiafoe a text message Monday after the win. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal took in his first tennis match while sitting in Tiafoe’s player box.

Tiafoe has been a longtime Wizards supporter. He has worn Beal’s No. 3 jersey around the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center throughout the tournament.

“That’s super cool. The fact they’re watching right now, it’s a perfect time,” Tiafoe said. “U.S. Open is always a perfect time because there’s no real sports really going on. People can focus on tennis, which is great.”

Tiafoe is taking the attention in stride. Rublev, 24, is a stern customer. He has won three titles, including two on hard courts, this year and outplayed Tiafoe when they last met in March as Tiafoe was coming off an injury. Tiafoe needed five sets to defeat him in the third round of the U.S. Open last year.

But the American will surely have the crowd behind him, cheering loudly — especially if Wednesday’s forecast for rain holds and the tournament closes the roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, turning the 24,000-seat stadium into an echo chamber.

With the audience on his side and a grand opportunity in front of him, Tiafoe likes his chances.

“Everyone is looking at it, I’m sure, everyone looks at it, like, ‘Here we go,’ right? So am I,” he said. “I’m just taking it day by day. Yeah, Slams — crazy things can happen, especially here in New York. It’s going to be a fun ride come Wednesday.”

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