“To be honest – it sounds weird – I don’t really care!” Tiafoe said, giggling on ESPN as McEnroe stammered in disbelief. “I’m happy – I want to win for myself, I don’t want this whole 19-year-old thing – and then I’ll say, ‘Yeah! I don’t need to hear that anymore!’
“Rafa and these guys won slams, I don’t care what your flag was. But there’s an opening now, and I want to do it. I believe I can do it this year.”
Tiafoe played with two mighty emotions that fueled him on Wednesday in what was either the biggest or the second biggest game of his career, depending on how Monday’s win fits his pantheon. A sense of freedom and confidence propelled him to a 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4 victory over world No. 11 Andrey Rublev, landing him in the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career.
“Greatest day of my life,” Tiafoe said of his win over Nadal. “… You know, that night I couldn’t really sleep – last night I slept great.”
Whether the 24-year-old wants to hear it or not, he is also the first American man to reach a US Open semifinal in 16 years. He is the first black man to reach a US Open semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
He moves on to the No. 4 in the world, Carlos Alcaraz, or the No. 13, Jannik Sinner, on Friday as a men’s tournament wide open for the taking. None of the five players still standing here have a Grand Slam trophy. One of them, Norway’s seventh-ranked Casper Ruud, has never won a tournament with a rating above the lowest level of the three-tier ATP ranking system.
Ruud has a chance to become number 1 at the closing of the US Open.
Why wouldn’t Tiafoe believe he can handle anything?
The Hyattsville, Maryland native looked bright and airy as they played under a closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, especially compared to Rublev. The Russian tried to overcome the quarter-final hump at a Grand Slam – he’s now down to six without winning.
But Rublev, 24, posed a major threat on paper. He possesses a powerful forehand and the ability to place it anywhere he pleases at any given moment. He has experience in big games, with victories over Roger Federer (in 2019), Nadal (in 2021 on clay) and Novak Djokovic (this year).
Tiafoe, ranked 26th in the world, looked unfazed. Like he did against Nadal, he kept his cool during a great first set where the rallies were kept short and the winners abounded. Tiafoe’s service was strong from the start, averaging 121.9 mph. He threw 18 aces.
His serve helped him jump to a 4-2 lead in the tiebreak, then swagger took over the halftime for a bit and Arthur Ashe Stadium drank it up and started a “Let’s go Frances” cheer to cut up all the other screams.
Tiafoe kept his celebrations simple and effective – a twitch here, asking for more crowd noise there. After particularly stunning shots, he held his hand up as if he were flavoring a dish—because he’d put something extra on it.
“I feel like that’s why you train hard,” he said. “Show the world what you can do. Don’t be ashamed of it. Go there.”
Rublev, meanwhile, drank from a cocktail of anger and misery. The top-ranked junior — who also lost to Tiafoe in the quarterfinals of the 2014 boys’ tournament here — the Russian became known for his epic tantrums on the court.
On Wednesday, he hit his leg with his racket after trailing 4-0 in the tiebreak of the second set. He cursed at his box. And in the third set, he seemed to bite a tennis ball before burying his face in his towel to cry, red circles around his eyes turning purple.
Tiafoe was so frustrating. He joked that the 7-0 tiebreak to end the second set was the best he will play in his life. But it wasn’t just the tiebreak, he was pitch perfect for 2 hours and 36 minutes.
He won 88 percent of his first serves, saved all four breakpoints he encountered and, by capturing two more tiebreakers, extended a 6-0 tiebreak record at this year’s US Open.
Tiafoe closed the match with an ace and let out a mighty roar, unhampered by the past and concerned only with his own future.
“Everyone loves a Cinderella story,” he said. “I’m just trying to make one.”