The first week of the US Open was dominated by the departure of Serena Williams.
The second week was dominated by the arrival of Frances Tiafoe.
Tiafoe, the 24-year-old son of Sierra Leonean immigrants who grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland, sparked the imagination of the tennis world — and the sporting world in general — by upsetting 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal and then he became the first American man since 2006 to reach the semifinals of the US Open, and the first black man since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
But his dramatic run ended Friday night at the hands of the game’s preeminent rising star, 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6- 3 in 4 hours, 18 minutes, in front of a packed house at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Michelle Obama, Larry Fitzgerald and Jon Bon Jovi were among the stars who contributed to an exciting atmosphere in Ashe, where court seats went for $6,000 and nosebleeds for $300.
“I gave everything I had, I gave everything I had for the past two weeks,” Tiafoe told Patrick McEnroe and the crowd before limping off the field to cheer.
“Honestly, I came here to win the US Open. I feel like I’ve let you down, this one really hurts. You are a great player [he told Alcaraz], a wonderful person. I’ll be back and I’ll win this thing one day, I’m sorry guys.”
Alcaraz, the No. 3 seed, will face No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway, in Sunday’s final, with each playing for their first major title and the No. 1 world ranking.
“Well, it’s great to be able to fight for big things,” Alcaraz said. “For the first time in a Grand Slam final I can see the world number 1 but at the same time it is so far away. I have one more to go against a player who plays incredible. He played the final of a Grand Slam at Roland Garros, but this is my first time. I’m going to give everything. I will have to overcome the nerves to be in a Grand Slam final, but of course I am very happy. I’m going to enjoy the moment and let’s see what happens.”
The winner of the final takes home $2.6 million and the runner-up $1.3 million.
At one point in the first set, Michelle Obama gave Tiafoe the thumbs up and he gave her one in return.
LeBron James is also a fan of Tiafoe and sends a supportive Tweet after his last match.
Alcaraz would play two games longer than the Godfather trilogy, including a 5-hour 15-minute quarterfinal over Jannik Sinner that ended at 2:50 am on Thursday. He didn’t leave the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center until 5 p.m. Thursday.
“I don’t think it’s too much to say it was one of the best games we’ve ever seen at the Open, even if it was a quarter,” John McEnroe said on the broadcast.
If Alcaraz was tired from that game, or overwhelmed by the moment, it didn’t show.
He again played calm and cool five sets for the third game in a row – joining Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi in the men’s to win three consecutive five-setters to reach a final. And he did so despite Tiafoe winning two tiebreaks and improving to a record 8-0 in breakers in one US Open.
In the deciding fifth, Alcaraz Tiafoe broke in the first game, his seventh break of the game.
Tiafoe broke back for 2-all, but Tiafoe then lost the next game out of love, with a double foul to lose the game.
With Tiafoe serving at 2-5 on triple match point, he cleared two match points with an ace on the T and a service winner.
On his fourth match point, Alcaraz finished it off when Tiafoe hit an awkward backhand into the net.
In the first set tiebreaker, Tiafoe raced out to a 6-3 lead and Alcaraz worked his way back to 6-all, only to give the set a double fault at the set point. With that, Tiafoe improved to 7-0 in breakers at this Open, an equalizer set by Pete Sampras in 2000. He would break that mark in the fourth.
In the second set, Tiafoe’s level dropped just enough for Alcaraz to get a break in game six when the American hit a forehand wide at breakpoint, giving the Spaniard a 4-2 lead. He held on to finish the second set and then raced through the third set, giving Tiafoe three service breaks.
Trailing 1-0 in the fourth set, the fans began chanting “Let’s go, Frances” urging him to continue.
But it didn’t matter. At the breaking point at 0-1, Tiafoe attempted a touch volley forehand that swept Alcaraz down, only to rip a two-handed backhand winner for 2-0.
But Tiafoe fought back to get 4-all, feeding on the energy of the crowd.
At 4-5, Tiafoe fought off a match point after a long rally with a backhand drop shot winner, giving Alcaraz – who likes to use the drop shot – a dose of his own medicine.
In the tiebreaker, Tiafoe turned on a 133mph service winner to lead 6-5. With Alcaraz serving on set point, the Spaniard put a forehand wide and sent the game to a fifth set.
“Well, we’re in a Grand Slam semi-final,” said Alcaraz. “We have to give everything we have. We have to fight to the last ball, you know. It doesn’t matter if we fight for five hours, six hours, you have to give everything on the court. Frances gave everything on the court , so it’s great.”
With the loss of Tiafoe, Andy Roddick remains the last American man to win both a major – at the US Open in 2003 – and a grand final at Wimbledon in 2009.
“I think American tennis is very strong now,” Ferreira said. “He’s been pushed nicely by Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz and” [Brandon] nakashima, [Sebastian] korda, [Jenson] Brooksby, all these guys.
“You know, they’re all still friends… they grew up together and all. I think that helps a lot, that he has his fellow countrymen around him who are happy for him and push him. I think that’s been very, very important.”
Tiafoe’s run undoubtedly inspired his fellow American players – of all ages – but for now they remain unable to break through to a grand final – or win that elusive big title.