Frances Tiafoe offers hope for present and future of U.S. men’s tennis

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NEW YORK — Frances Tiafoe’s run to the U.S. Open semifinals is, first and foremost, about Tiafoe himself, a 24-year-old from Maryland who took up tennis because his father was a janitor at a junior training center, a player who never won a match past the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament until now, who owns one career ATP title and a sub-.500 career record, and whose ranking ranged from 24 to 74 over the past two seasons.

“A Cinderella story,” to use his phrase.

Tiafoe’s tale – which already includes a victory over 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal along the way to his matchup against No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain with a berth in the final at stake – is about so much more, too.

It is a significant step forward for American men’s tennis right now and could help grow the sport in the future, too.

Tiafoe is the first man from the United States to reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick, 16 years ago. He has a shot at giving the country its first male champion at any Slam since Roddick in New York, 19 years ago.

If he can get past Alcaraz- the other men’s semifinal is No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway against No. 27 Karen Khachanov of Russia – Tiafoe would become the first Black man from the U.S. in a major final since MaliVai Washington was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 1996.

“American men’s tennis has been struggling for a couple of decades. Struggling with a standard that we set for ourselves: Grand Slam champions and Grand Slam finals,” Washington said in a telephone interview. “That has not happened on the men’s side in years.”

A high bar was set by the success of the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe – the last African American man in the U.S. Open semifinals, in 1972, and the person for whom the event’s main stadium is named – and, before that, Don Budge and Bill Tilden. Thanks to the Williams sisters, and other players who were major champs or runners-up more recently, such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Sofia Kenin and Danielle Collins, American women’s tennis has stayed relevant long past the days of Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.

“It absolutely helps the U.S. Open to have male and female champions from the U.S. Absolutely,” tournament director Stacey Allaster said. “We had the greatest of all time for decades on the women’s side. And obviously we’ve had amazing American champions on the men’s side, from Pete and Andre to Andy. But it’s been a while.”

As Serena Williams prepared to walk away from her playing days, current athletes such as Tiafoe, 18-year-old Coco Gauff and others spoke during the U.S. Open about the influence she and her sister, Venus, had on their careers.

Gauff has said she plays what she called “a predominantly white sport” because she “saw somebody who looked like me dominating the game.”

The importance of representation can’t be overstated.

“What Frances is doing now is inspiring me,” Washington said. “And I hope he inspires young players – not just Black, but white, Hispanic, Asian. Certainly, because of his background, and the the color of his skin, it’s going to have a certain impact on young Black players and especially young Black boys. And I hope it makes them think, `OK, I’ve been playing tennis for a bunch of years. This inspires me to keep going.’ Or: `I’ve never played tennis before. This inspires me to try.”‘

Tiafoe’s on-court enthusiasm – “which you might see more readily in basketball,” Washington said – and off-court personality could help draw youngsters to tennis.

So could the sorts of social media that didn’t exist in Washington’s playing days.

“I don’t know if you can ever truly know what type of impact you’re having on the next generation until maybe years later, when someone says, `Hey, I started playing tennis because I remember watching you at Wimbledon,”‘ said Washington, whose youth foundation in Jacksonville, Florida, offers after-school and summer programs. “We’re always trying to look for a diverse group of players, trying to find that next player and maybe looking for that next player in unconventional places.”

Martin Blackman, head of the U.S. Tennis Association’s player development program, thinks Tiafoe “resonates and is relevant in the culture. He represents a huge opportunity to make tennis `cooler.”‘

Tiafoe does not shy from the notion that he can lead the way for others.

“He wants to be a role model,” said his coach, Wayne Ferreira. “I always tell him, `If you want to be a role model, you have to win tennis matches.’ … If he can win this tournament, he can be an inspiration for a lot of kids.”

Tiafoe was 6 when he first crossed paths with Blackman, who at the time was a coach at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where little Francis and his twin brother, stayed while Dad worked.

“He would watch the group lessons, he would watch the private lessons, he would hit on the wall,” Blackman said.

Blackman sees what Tiafoe is doing as the result of a process started more than a dozen years ago to try to develop future champions.

Blackman sees a “healthy peer pressure” in the group of American men around Tiafoe’s age who have come through the ranks – and rankings – together, including Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul.

“We want that same dynamic we had back in the early `90s, with Pete, Andre, Jim Courier and Michael Chang,” Blackman said. “That’s another part of why Frances’ breakthrough is so significant.”

Nakashima takes first ATP Tour title at San Diego

San Diego Open - Finals
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SAN DIEGO – Brandon Nakashima earned his first ATP Tour victory in his hometown, beating friend and fellow Southern Californian Marcos Giron 6-4, 6-4 in the San Diego Open final.

“It’s super-special, something you dream of, but to have it happen in my hometown with all my friends and family here, it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said Nakashima, who had two previous finals appearances. “I hope there are many more moments like this to come.”

Nakashima, a 21-year-old who grew up in San Diego and trained extensively at the event’s site as a junior, clinched the opening set in only 30 minutes. The second set, filled with lengthy rallies, took nearly an hour.

Giron, the No. 5 seed and former NCAA title winner from UCLA, wasn’t able to fend off Nakashima’s persistent ground strokes and well-placed serves. Nakashima had eight aces, six in the first set.

Serving at 5-4 in the second set, Nakashima tallied the match’s deciding two points when Giron pushed an easy volley into the net, followed by Nakashima’s second-serve ace.

He earned $93,090, about half of what received for reaching the third round of the U.S. Open in early September.

Nakashima, who was ranked No. 69 on the ATP Tour, moved up to 48, his highest ranking in nearly three years on tour. Despite the loss, Giron moved up to 53 from 58.

Not only was the singles title claimed by an American, the doubles title also taken by an American duo as the second-seeded pair of Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow defeated Australians Jason Kubler and Luke Saville 7-6 (5), 6-2.

The $612,00 event was held at Barnes Tennis Center, which next hosts the $757,900 WTA 500 San Diego Open, Oct. 8-16. That will feature 16 of the world’s top-ranked 20 women pros, led by No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Frances Tiafoe lifts Team World to 1st Laver Cup win

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LONDON — The last to arrive, befitting his reputation in the locker room, Frances Tiafoe strutted into the post-match news conference after clinching Team World’s Laver Cup victory over Roger Federer’s star-studded Team Europe and shouted, “Champs are here!”

Then the 24-year-old from Maryland joined his teammates at the table where the silver trophy was resting Sunday night, put down a bottle of water, pulled a Budweiser out of his red jacket and smiled that wide smile of his.

Performing with the same infectious showmanship and crunch-time success he displayed en route to his first Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open earlier this month, Tiafoe staved off four match points and came back to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8, giving Team World its first triumph in five editions of an event founded by Federer’s management company.

“I don’t like losing,” said Federer, a 20-time major champion whose final match before retirement was a loss alongside Rafael Nadal in doubles against Tiafoe and Jack Sock on Friday night. “It’s not fun. It just leaves not the best taste.”

When Tsitsipas put a forehand into the net to end Sunday’s contest – and the three-day competition – Tiafoe dropped his racket and fell to his back on the court, where teammates piled atop him. After getting on his feet, Tiafoe cupped a hand to his ear, asking spectators for more noise, then pointed to his chest and yelled, “I’m him! I’m him!”

“When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it,” Tiafoe said. “I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Using the nickname other players gave Tiafoe to reflect the way he embraces big moments, Team World captain John McEnroe said: “Frances is `Prime Time.’ He loves this stuff.”

McEnroe had been 0-4 while leading his squad against his former playing rival, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg; both indicated they would be back for the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver, but that might be their last go-round.

This one served as a celebration of Federer and the 41-year-old Swiss star’s career.

Tiafoe responded with a quip when asked whether he might owe Federer some form of “I’m sorry” for beating him in his finale or for defeating his team, which also included Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for a total of 66 major singles titles. That, incidentally, is 66 more than Team World, a collection of 20-somethings (Sock turned 30 on Saturday).

“”I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” said Tiafoe, who went 0-3 against Federer in singles head-to-head. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Team Europe entered Sunday at O2 Arena with an 8-4 lead; the first team to 13 points would win.

Each match on Day 3 was worth three points, and Team World went ahead thanks to a pair of victories by Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 22-year-old from Canada. He beat Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (3), after partnering with Sock to edge Murray and Matteo Berrettini 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 in doubles.

Tiafoe then made it 13-8, but it wasn’t easy.

He went a tournament-record 8-0 in tiebreakers at Flushing Meadows this month and was just as resilient Sunday.

“It’s been a long time that Frances has been playing the big guys close and losing a lot of close battles. It’s great to see lately he’s been winning,” said Taylor Fritz, an American who is the same age as Tiafoe and has known him for years. “It’s about time that he steps up and the matches go the other way. Today was a joke.”

That’s because Tiafoe was a single point from losing to Tsitsipas four times in their second-set tiebreaker, but somehow got through that. Then, at 4-all in the concluding match tiebreaker – first to 10, win by two – Tiafoe sprinted from behind the baseline to near the net and barely got to a drop shot by Tsitsipas, somehow lunging to flick an angled winner.

While most of the 16,365 fans went wild, Tiafoe went around the net and stood still, hands on his hips, relishing the atmosphere.

“We put him in the slot that he was in today for a reason,” said Team World’s Tommy Paul, another 24-year-old American, “and he stepped up for us, big time.”