It’s been a long, agonising wait for an American male to reach the semi-finals at the US Open
— 16 years, to be exact.
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It’s an even longer wait since an American male last hoisted a grand slam trophy, with Andy Roddick the last man to do so at Flushing Meadows back in 2003.
But some 19 years later and a 24-year-old from the suburbs of Washington has the chance to break the drought at the exact same venue.
Frances Tiafoe, the No. 22 seed in New York, booked a spot in the semi finals after beating Russian star Andrey Rublev 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4 in the quarterfinals.
The victory over Rublev followed his spectacular four-set victory over World No. 2 Rafael Nadal, a win that even had NBA superstars LeBron James and Joel Embiid tweeting in support.
To get to this stage has been some journey.
The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Tiafoe was, as Andscape’s Jerry Bembry wrote in 2019, “the poor kid who fell in love with a rich man’s sport”.
His father, Constant, began working at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Washington back in 1999.
As he was constantly working, Constant moved into a vacant storage room at the facility and called it home, with Frances and twin brother Franklin sleeping on a massage table in the room.
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Tiafoe was also mocked by some of the more fortunate kids at the facility, as they poked fun at the Pikachu t-shirt he would almost always wear and the fact his big toe poked out of a hole in his shoes.
But according to Misha Kouznetsov, a tennis instructor at JTCC back in 2006, Tiafoe’s relentless approach to the sport was a sure sign he was destined for greatness.
“He wasn’t anymore talented than the other eight-year-olds who were there,” Kouznetsov told Andscape.
“But when I came to work in the morning, he was there. When I left at night, he was there.
“I saw a kid who was always there, and a kid who I could teach as much tennis as I wanted to.”
Kouznetsov paid Tiafoe’s entry fees to various tournaments as he began to beat kids older and bigger than him.
Perhaps it was victory at the Orange Bowl, one of the most prestigious junior tennis tournaments in the world, that proved Tiafoe truly was different.
Previous champions of the Orange Bowl include several of America’s best mens tennis talents, such as Andy Roddick, Jim Courier and John McEnroe.
From that moment on, Tiafoe’s journey to the top of tennis hasn’t been exactly straightforward as he came to grips with life on the ATP tour.
His deepest run at a grand slam before this year was the quarter-finals at the Australian Open in 2019.
Just 21 years of age at the time, Tiafoe stunned tennis with victories over No. 5 seed Kevin Anderson in the second round as well as No. 20 seed Grigor Dmitrov in the fourth round.
However, Tiafoe’s dream run came to a screeching halt when he was dumped out by Nadal.
Three years later and cutting a more mature figure, Tiafoe was primed for their fourth round meeting at Flushing Meadows.
Granted, Nadal isn’t the same player he was in 2019 as the rigours of several years on tour take their toll on the 37-year-old’s body.
But a win is a win, and Tiafoe’s victory over Nadal was the first time since 2005 that an American had beaten the Spaniard at a grand slam.
In fact, it is Nadal’s first loss at a grand slam in 2022, having won the Australian and French Open before withdrawing from his Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios due to a tear in his abdomen.
It was also the first time in six years an American had defeated one of tennis’ famous ‘Big Three’ – Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer’ – since Sam Querrey knocked Djokovic out of Wimbledon.
Tiafoe’s triumph over Nadal was a welcome moment for American men’s tennis, given that wins over the top dogs of tennis from American men have come few and far between over the years.
As The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd described, “the last two decades of American men’s tennis have been a cruel cycle of great expectations and broken dreams, of young prodigies who flame out and top prospects who hit the wall, unable to compete with a generation of ageless greats.”
Before the turn of the century, men’s tennis could hardly escape the dominance of Americans on the tour.
Jimmy Connors was the first of the gold rush, winning the Australian Open, French Open and the US Open in 1974 to truly announce America was here to stay in tennis.
The mercurial John McEnroe was the next to assert his dominance in the men’s game, winning several US Open and Wimbledon titles from 1979 onwards.
Even when the flames of McEnroe and Connors began to fade, a new generation was primed to take over.
Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were banging down the door, with the latter going on to win a whopping 14 grand slam titles in his stellar career.
Agassi got in on the act of his fellow countrymen by winning Wimbledon in 1992 as well as three Australian Open titles in the early 2000s.
But when Sampras and Agassi inevitably began to slow down, there was no-one waiting in the wings to take the wheel.
Granted, Andy Roddick won the 2003 US Open.
But that was as good as it got, as the unforseen trophy drought of American men’s tennis began.
There had been hints along the way that maybe, just maybe, someone would give the nation what it so dearly craved.
Mardy Fish made it as high as World No. 7 at one stage, but never went further than the quarter finals of a grand slam.
The next man to galvanise the hope of America was John Isner.
With a booming serve, he had a major advantage that helped him win several titles in his career.
But when it comes to grand slams, Isner made it beyond the fourth round of a grand slam on just three out of 55 attempts.
Several other names have been touted as the next prospect who will finally break America’s wait for a male slam champion.
Ryan Harrison came and went, as did Jack Sock and Donald Young.
There’s also the current crop of youngsters, such as Taylor Fritz, Sebastian Korda and Brandon Nakashima to name three.
But Tiafoe has the chance to eclipse all of them and make himself a national hero.
Standing in his way is Spanish teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz, a youngster who is widely tipped to be the leader of the next generation.
However, Tiafoe, who described himself earlier during the US Open as “that dark horse who can do something special”, is just two wins away from shocking not just a country of 300 million, but the entire world.