A tennis racket is just a toy again in the hands of Frances Tiafoe. No one at the U.S. Open has carried himself more lightly or playfully through this tournament of such weighty, climactic encounters. Watch him as he beckons the crowd, ushers it to standing ovations with the call of his fingertips, as if to say: “Join me in the fun. Don’t forget to find the game in all this tremendous pressure and action.”
Anyone who has watched even 10 minutes of the 2022 U.S. Open knows it has been a significant event. It began on a profound note with Serena Williams making one last fierce run before retiring at the age of almost 41 as the sport’s greatest women’s champion and a cultural transformer who commanded a television audience of nearly 6 million on ESPN. It hit a competitive crescendo at 3 a.m. Thursday, when 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz defeated 21-year-old Jannik Sinner after more than five hours in the latest finish to an Open match ever, heralding a rivalrous transition to a brilliant new generational morning.
In the middle of all that comes 24-year-old Tiafoe, threatening to live up to his own huge young promise with a sonic-strike serve, crafty game and a gaptoothed grin, the first American man to reach the semifinals since 2006 — and easily the most irreverent.
“I just want to put on a show,” he says, beaming.
Between points he moves with a casualness, as if he’s almost surprised by his own burgeoning body, the huge quadrants of muscle he has worked hard to develop. But when the ball goes up, he is a torquing blur. He hits forehands like a pancake flipper showing off his skill with a spatula. His backhand is a swinging door slammed by a heedless boy. His touch volleys are handsy, palming little drops, which he then celebrates with a strutty rub of his thumb and forefinger together, as if to say, “Put a little spice on that.” He radiates the sense of original pleasure that kids do when play is still just that: play.
He defies excessive solemnity. Back at the 2019 Australian Open, when he made his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, he couldn’t help a joke at the expense of the elderly, somnolent 84-year-old Australian great Rod Laver. When asked how it felt to be watched by the Hall of Famer, Tiafoe replied teasingly: “I thought it was cool. Saw the eyes close at one point. ‘Don’t fall asleep on me.’ I was about ready to say something, you know what I’m saying?”
Others demand to play tennis in reverential silence enforced by shushing chair umpires, but Tiafoe likes a little rustling in the stands and finds the insistence on quiet overbearing for paying fans.
“Some players are complaining about someone in the absolute nosebleeds,” he says. “Are you really worried about what that person is doing?”
He has managed his dramatic career expectations with a similar sense of unworried ease. Is he a year or two late living up to his Grand Slam potential, discovered as a child at the USTA Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., where his father toiled as a janitor while his mother worked double nursing shifts through the nights? Maybe so. Or perhaps he’s just right on time. Perhaps he instinctively refused to ruin his lovely temperament with undue pressure before he was fully ready to handle it.
If he showed some baby fat, ate junk food, let himself have chocolate and desserts and often skipped breakfast, if he wasn’t quite ready to deal with the crush of attention and responsibilities that come with winning Grand Slams, if “he wasn’t, in my opinion, really professional enough,” as his coach Wayne Ferreira says, if he took some time to mature like most people his age, well what about it?
“You go through different stages of your life,” Tiafoe said this week with a verbal shrug. “Took me a long time to kind of just get myself together.”
It wasn’t such a bad thing for people to take their eyes off him for a while, while the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were so regnant in the game anyway.
“Didn’t really matter where you’re from, what was your name. You ran into those guys, and they just said, ‘See ya,’ ” he observed.
Between 2019 and 2020, he was content to grow at his own pace and earn a few “cheeky wins,” as he called them. “During that time the cameras weren’t on me, attention wasn’t on me,” he says. “I was able to just kind of get better and do my own thing. I stopped trying to be ‘the guy.’ Like when things were going to happen, it was going to happen. I was fine with it. I was comfortable with myself.”
Now that it’s happening, it seems like a natural and sensible progression. What has happened with Tiafoe’s game this season is that he simply became fully professionalized. In the spring of 2020 he hired Ferreira, a former top-10 player who in his day was as tough and lean as beef jerky. Tiafoe bowed to Ferreira’s demands to give up the cookies and candy, start eating decent training meals at regular times and step up his effort on the practice court.
“It’s not about playing great tennis; it’s about competing your ass off, and I think that goes a long way,” Tiafoe said at the end of 2020. “You can win a lot of matches just putting it all on the line … I’m trying to strive to do more of that instead of just trying to always, you know, be on ESPN top 10. Going to meat and potatoes and get busy.”
He has spent the Open dining quietly in his room, on takeout meat and potatoes from Morton’s Steakhouse, and getting his rest. “I’m still eating well; don’t worry about that,” he says with laughter. “I’m not eating Chick-fil-A or nothing like that. We still getting them good eats. It’s just in the crib. You know what I’m saying?”
In short, Tiafoe is just getting started. The second half of this Grand Slam season has seen him sharply accelerate: After reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon, he metamorphosized in New York into a newly formidable match-closer, winning 15 of 16 sets.
“It’s the mental capacity,” Tiafoe said self-appraisingly this week. “Rafa is there every point. I’ve been known to have some dips in my game at times, where it’s like you’re watching, ‘What’s that?’ That was my thing: match intensity.”
His defeat of Andrey Rublev to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal was everything he has been seeking, at once a matter of match intensity yet also a tumultuous showman’s display that ended with him breathing in the crowd roars as if they were his own oxygen.
So many young aspirants in tennis can seem overburdened to the point of buckling — it was impossible to miss the gaunt hauntedness and red-rimmed eyes of Rublev, also just 24, who is struggling to hold his place in the top 10. Which called to mind some early words from Vesa Ponkka, the longtime director of the Junior Tennis Champions Center, about Tiafoe when he was still a teenager:
“His love of the game is so deep and so pure,” Ponkka said. “Some players love winning. Some players love money. Some players love traveling. He loves everything about this game. He loves even the smell of the new balls. He loves how the ball sounds on the strings. He loves these things that actually are much more important than money or that stuff. He plays the game for the right reasons. And none of us taught him that.”
Let’s hope he holds on to it forever.