NEW YORK — In an interview with John McEnroe about the pressure he feels as the last American man standing at the U.S. Open, Frances Tiafoe had the tennis great sputtering for words.
“To be honest — it sounds weird — I actually don’t care!” said Tiafoe, giggling on ESPN as McEnroe stammered in disbelief. “I’m happy — I want to win for me. I don’t want this whole 19-year thing — and then after, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have to hear that anymore!’
“Rafa and these guys were winning Slams; I don’t care what your flag was. But there’s an opening now, and I want to do it. I believe I can do it this year.”
Tiafoe played with two mighty emotions fueling him Wednesday in what was either the biggest or the second-biggest match of his career, depending on how Monday’s win fits into his pantheon. A feeling of freedom and self-belief helped power him to a 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4 win over world No. 11 Andrey Rublev, putting him in the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career.
“Biggest day of my life,” Tiafoe said of his win over Nadal. “ … You know, that night, I couldn’t really sleep — last night I slept great.”
Whether the 24-year-old wants to hear it or not, he is also the first American man to reach a U.S. Open semifinal in 16 years. He is the first Black man from the United States to reach a U.S. Open semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
He advances to face world No. 4 Carlos Alcaraz or No. 13 Jannik Sinner (they squared off Wednesday night) on Friday as a men’s tournament wide open for the taking rolls on. None of the five players left standing have a Grand Slam trophy. One of them, seventh-ranked Casper Ruud of Norway, has never won a tournament above the lowest tier on the ATP’s three-tier rating system.
Ruud has a chance to be ranked No. 1 at the U.S. Open’s close.
Why wouldn’t Tiafoe believe he can take it all?
The Hyattsville native looked light and breezy playing under a closed roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, particularly compared to Rublev. The Russian was trying to get over the quarterfinal hump at a Grand Slam — he now has been to six without winning.
Yet Rublev, 24, posed a major threat on paper. He possesses a powerful forehand and the ability to place it anywhere he desires at any moment. He has big-match experience, having logged wins over Roger Federer (in 2019), Nadal (in 2021 on clay) and Novak Djokovic (this year).
Tiafoe, ranked 26th in the world, looked unbothered. Just as he did against Nadal, he remained calm throughout a cracking first set in which rallies were kept short and winners were plentiful. Tiafoe’s serve was strong from the start, averaging 121.9 mph. He blasted 18 aces.
His serve helped him leap to a 4-2 lead in the tiebreaker, at which point swagger took over and Arthur Ashe Stadium drank it in, starting a “Let’s go, Frances!” cheer to punctuate all of the other screams.
Tiafoe kept his celebrations simple and effective — a flex of his muscles here, asking for more crowd noise there. After particularly stunning shots, he held his hand cocked aloft as if seasoning a dish — because he had put a little something extra on that one.
“I feel like that’s why you train hard,” he said. “Show the world what you can do. Don’t shy away from it. Go to it.”
Rublev drank from a cocktail of rage and misery. As a top-ranked junior — who lost to Tiafoe in the quarterfinals of the 2014 boys’ tournament here — the Russian became known for epic temper tantrums on the court.
On Wednesday, he banged his racket against his leg after trailing 4-0 in the second-set tiebreaker. He swore at his box. And in the third set, he appeared to bite a tennis ball before burying his face in his towel to cry, red rings around his eyes turning purplish.
Tiafoe was that frustrating. He joked that the 7-0 tiebreaker to close the second set was the best he’ll play in his life. But it wasn’t just the tiebreaker — he was pitch perfect for 2 hours 36 minutes.
He won 88 percent of his first serves, saved all four break points he faced and, in capturing two more tiebreakers, extended a 6-0 record in them at this U.S. Open.
Tiafoe sealed the match with an ace, letting out a mighty roar after, unencumbered by the past and concerned only with his own future.
“Everyone loves a Cinderella story,” he said. “Just trying to make one.”