Can Frances Tiafoe be the first American man to win the US Open in nearly 20 years?

    • Joined ESPN in 2011
    • Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
    • Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018

NEW YORK — The wristband on Frances Tiafoe’s racket hand reads “Believe. Why Not Me.”

After defeating Rafael Nadal and Andrey Rublev in front of packed stadiums, many more have begun to believe that his time might be now.

Perhaps Tiafoe will be the one who ends the 19-year drought for a U.S. men’s singles champion at the US Open.

Watching him play is a delight: the way he sprints back after changeovers, his eye-catching style of play, the wonderful array of shots, his ruthless serve. And even the sheer carnage of the scene behind his chair at the end of the match, clothes and shoes strewn all over the place.

“My player bank is diabolical. Yeah, it’s getting the job done, so who cares right now?” Tiafoe said after his match against Rublev.

And all that’s all whipped up with his incredible backstory and infectious personality.

“Hopefully there’ll be a movie about him one day,” his coach Wayne Ferreira said after the win over Rublev.

Born in Maryland, the 24-year-old is the son of immigrants who moved to the U.S. in the 1990s from war-torn Sierra Leone. His dad, Constant, worked on the construction of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Washington, D.C. Constant ended up with the job of caretaker, and was given a room there where his boys — Frances and his twin brother, Franklin — would sleep some nights as their mom, Alphina, worked double shifts as a nurse.

“It wasn’t supposed to be anything like this,” Tiafoe said earlier this week. “Once we got in the game of tennis, my dad was like, ‘It would be awesome if you guys can use this as a full scholarship to school.’ We couldn’t afford a university, so use the game of tennis.”

Nine years ago in 2013 he won the Orange Bowl — a junior tournament that Roger Federer, Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have all won as well.

Another winner there was Andy Roddick — the man whose footsteps Tiafoe is now treading in at Flushing Meadows. Tiafoe’s win over Rublev made him the youngest American semifinalist since Roddick in 2006. Roddick was also the last American man to win the US Open, in 2003.

But this is Tiafoe’s path, and he’s doing it his way, motivated by the dreams of success he had as a youngster. He calls the big three in men’s tennis the “Mount Rushmore guys,” but it was Serena and Venus Williams who caught his imagination and have remained his idols. He has worn a Serena GOAT hoodie to walk on to the court in his past two matches.

“At that time watching Serena and Venus [Williams] play finals of Grand Slams, when I was super young, I was like, ‘How cool would it be to play Wimbledon, to play on Arthur Ashe and stuff like that?'” Tiafoe said after his win against Nadal. Now he’s the first Black American man to reach the US Open semifinals since Ashe himself did in 1972.

And when he takes center stage on Friday to play Carlos Alcaraz, he’ll have the entire place behind him.

This is a run that has long been hinted at but never realized. His best finish at an ATP 1000 tournament was a quarterfinal back in 2019 at Miami. His previous best run at a Grand Slam was the quarterfinals of the Australian Open that same year. There was the ability, but the results weren’t matching up.

“We have been working a lot in the last couple of months on the mental side, about trying to deal with the big, important situations,” Ferreira said after the win over Rublev. “He’s achieved them exceptionally well. The ball striking has been good for the last couple of months. That’s been something that’s been good for us. It’s just finishing off matches.”

Ferreira also referenced how they worked on his nutrition. “He liked a lot of candy and chocolates and cookies,” Ferreira said. “He’d eat at unusual times. He missed breakfast a lot. Didn’t really have a good set of times on when to eat before matches, what to eat after matches. You need a little guidance on that side, and he’s done well on that side of it.”

Here at the US Open, Tiafoe hasn’t eaten out in a restaurant once, instead ordering in from Morton’s Steakhouse.

They’ve changed their training so the practice sessions are shorter, mobile phones are banned and Tiafoe runs without music to hone his concentration.

“I think during that time the cameras weren’t on me, attention wasn’t on me, I was able to just kind of get better and do my own thing,” Tiafoe said after Rublev match. “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. Yeah, now, it’s all come into fruition.”

Tiafoe’s US Open tournament started out on Court 17 with a first-round win over Marcos Giron. Six days later — having seen off Jason Kubler and Diego Schwartzman — he was on Ashe playing Nadal.

After 3 hours and 34 minutes, he bested him. That defeat had wider ramifications for the men’s title, with Karen Khachanov saying after his win over Nick Kyrgios that Tiafoe’s triumph meant the rest saw it as an “opportunity to take the trophy” with one of the GOATs dispatched.

But it’s one thing seeing the favorite being knocked out, and another being the player who managed it and processing everything that comes with it.

Another one of his wristbands reads “Be Your Own GOAT.” That win over Nadal was a milestone moment for Tiafoe, and then after the match, he saw a tweet from LeBron James praising him. “Man, I was losing it in the locker room,” Tiafoe said. “Bro, I was going crazy. Yeah, I mean, that’s my guy. So 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 act like I didn’t see it and then retweet it three hours later.'”

Tiafoe had a sleepless night after that match.

“The difficulty is Rafa has been the best player he’s ever beaten,” Ferreira said. “To go from that and play two days later is always very, very difficult. So we tried really hard to get him to enjoy the moment but try to move on.”

They focused on living in the moment. After the win over Rublev, Tiafoe raised his hands to the closed roof of Ashe, did a little dance and then went over to give Bradley Beal, another one of his basketball heroes, a hug. Beal, who plays for Tiafoe’s hometown Washington Wizards, was front row in the best seat in the house to see America’s sports star.

Tiafoe then looked over to his box. He saw his father standing motionless in shocked joy, and as they made eye contact, Constant raised his hands to the roof, Alphina hugged his girlfriend Ayan Broomfield, while everybody and anybody stood in collective joyful disbelief with Ferreira in the midst of it.

But against Rublev, it all came together for Tiafoe. “It was honestly a laughable tiebreaker,” Tiafoe said. “You can’t make that up.”

With Tiafoe just two matches away from tennis immortality, there’s no danger of getting carried away. “There is a lot of great players that haven’t had a great career by not winning anything,” Ferreira said. “For me it’s about winning. I think he needs to win. That comes down to success by winning and victory.”

Tiafoe will again try to press the reset button ahead of the semifinal. He doesn’t want to be another tale of a near-miss.

“I love to show the world what I can do,” Tiafoe said. “Then it makes me feel good when people appreciate how hard you’re trying out there and appreciate good tennis, especially where I came from. To see how many people I can get behind me. Means a lot.

“If you are truly, truly passionate about something, I think anything can happen, and being just obsessed with it. Right now I’m just really obsessed with tennis, and I want to see how far I can go with this thing.”

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He’ll listen to his mother’s advice, which she gives him before every match — play the man, not the name. And he’ll remember the motto on his wrist.

“[I] look at that: Yeah, why not me? You put the time in, so why not me? Believe in yourself, it’s so big,” Tiafoe said. “You have to believe in yourself before anybody else does.”

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