New York, Sept. 9 (AP) Frances Tiafoe’s run to the US Open semifinals is first and foremost about Tiafoe himself, a 24-year-old player from Maryland who started tennis because his father was a janitor at a junior training center, a player who has never won a match after the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament so far, who holds a career ATP title and a career record below .500, and whose rankings ranged from 24 to 74 over the past two seasons.
“A Cinderella story”, to use his expression.
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There’s so much more to Tiafoe’s story – which already includes a win over 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal ahead of Friday’s match against Spain’s No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz with a place in the final at stake. .
It’s a significant step forward for American men’s tennis right now and could help grow the sport in the future as well.
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Tiafoe is the first United States man to reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick 16 years ago. He has a chance to give the country its first men’s champion at any Slam since Roddick in New York 19 years ago.
If he can get past Alcaraz on Friday – 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 United States in a major final since MaliVai. Washington was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 1996.
“American men’s tennis has been struggling for a few decades. Struggling with a standard that we set for ourselves: Grand Slam champions and Grand Slam finals,” Washington said in a telephone interview Thursday. “That hasn’t happened on the men’s side for years.”
A high bar has been set by the success of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe – the last African-American man to reach the US Open semi-finals, in 1972, and the person for whom the The event’s main stage is named – and, before that, Don Budge and Bill Tilden.
Thanks to the Williams sisters and other players who have been champions or major finalists more recently, such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Sofia Kenin and Danielle Collins, American women’s tennis has remained relevant long after the days of Chris Evert and Billie Jean. King.
“It absolutely helps the US Open to have US men’s and women’s champions,” said tournament director Stacey Allaster. “We had the best of all time for decades on the women’s side. And of course, we’ve had incredible American men’s champions, from Pete and Andre to Andy. But it’s been a while.
As Serena Williams prepared to step down from her playing days, current athletes such as Tiafoe, 18-year-old Coco Gauff and others spoke at the US Open about the influence she and her sister, Venus , have had on their careers.
Gauff said she was playing what she called “a predominantly white sport” because she “saw someone who looked like me dominating the game.”
The importance of representation cannot be overstated.
“What Frances is doing now inspires me,” Washington said. “And I hope he inspires young players – not just black, but white, Hispanic, Asian. Certainly, because of his background and the color of his skin, it’s going to have some impact on young people. black players and especially young black boys. And I hope this gets them thinking, OK, I’ve been playing tennis for a bunch of years. This inspires me to keep going. Or: I’ve never played tennis before. It inspires me to try.'”
Tiafoe’s enthusiasm on the court — “which you might see more easily in basketball,” Washington said — and her personality off the court could help attract young people to tennis.
The same goes for the kinds of social media that didn’t exist back when Washington was playing.
“I don’t know if you can really tell what kind of impact you have on the next generation until maybe years later when someone says, Hey, I started playing tennis because I remember seeing you at Wimbledon,” said Washington, whose youth foundation in Jacksonville, Fla., offers after-school and summer programs.
“We’re always trying to find a diverse group of players, trying to find that next player and maybe looking for that next player in unconventional places.”
Martin Blackman, manager of the US Tennis Association’s player development program, thinks Tiafoe “resonates and is culturally relevant. He represents a huge opportunity to make tennis cooler.'”
Tiafoe isn’t shy about thinking he can show others the way.
“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 to many children.
Tiafoe was 6 when he first ran into 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 had been staying while dad worked.
“He was watching group lessons, he was watching private lessons, he was banging on the wall,” Blackman said.
Blackman sees what Tiafoe is doing as the result of a process that began over a dozen years ago to try to develop future champions.
Blackman sees “healthy peer pressure” in the group of American men of Tiafoe’s age who have climbed the ladder – and the rankings – together, including Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul.
“We want the same dynamic we had in the early 90s, with Pete, Andre, Jim Courier and Michael Chang,” Blackman said. “That’s another reason Frances’ breakthrough is so important.” (AP)
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