It has been quite some time since American men made an impact in professional tennis. The days of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors railing at officials are long gone. The elegance of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi is a distant memory. The same for Andy Roddick and Jim Courier.
So it was refreshing to see a new face, an American face, making a splash at the U.S. Open. Frances Tiafoe brought excitement and exuberance to Centre Court with his stunning upset of Rafael Nadal, one of the profiles in men’s tennis’ Mount Rushmore.
Nadal and his 22 Grand Slams were sent packing by Tiafoe and said he was beaten by a better player. It was a tribute to the 24-year-old Tiafoe, who learned the game in the College Park, Md. facility where his father was the maintenance director.
Constant Tiafor migrated to the United States from Sierra Leone to escape a civil war. He settled in Maryland where he found work first in construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center and so impressed the proprietors that they hired him to look after the place.
Their father had an office in the facility, and it was there that Frances Tiafoe and his twin brother sometimes slept, giving them plenty of access to the courts where young players hone their skills. The hope was that the boys would become good enough to earn college scholarships. Frances took it farther than that.
Practicing endlessly, hitting balls against the tennis center’s walls over and over and over again, young Tiafoe was developing a passion for the game. And he was good enough to turn heads with speed and power that stamped him early on as a special player, one who could take his game beyond the casual pastime.
There were victories in club events and the prestigious Orange Bowl in Florida as a teen-ager and by 2015, he turned professional. The tennis cognoscenti labeled him as a top prospect, equipped with all the tools he needed for success.
There were some early struggles but he reached the third round at Wimbledon in 2018. By the end of last season, he was ranked No. 38 and by the time he reached Flushing Meadow for the Open, Tiafoe was up to No. 26.
Then came the stunning victory over Nadal, one of the best players in the sport. It was an inspiring victory that Tiafoe celebrated enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear as he listened to the crowd cheering him on.
The American did one better when he beat Andrei Rubev in straight sets in the quarterfinals. Tiafoe became the first American man to make the U.S. Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006.
Tiafoe became the first African American man to make the semifinals since Arthur Ashe in 1972 and it came in the stadium named after the tennis great.