Tiafoe offers hope for the present and future of US men’s tennis

NEW YORK (AP) — Frances Tiafoe’s run to the U.S. Open semifinals is, first and foremost, about Tiafoe himself, a 24-year-old from Maryland who got into tennis because his father was a janitor at a youth training center, a player who has never won a match past the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament until now, who holds an ATP career title and a career sub-500 record, and whose ranking has ranged from 24 to 74 over the past two seasons.

“A Cinderella story”, to use his phrase.

Tiafoe’s story – which already includes a victory over 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in Friday’s match against No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain with a spot in the final at stake – is also much more.

It’s a major step forward for US men’s tennis right now and could help grow the sport well into the future.

Tiafoe is the first man from the United States to reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick 16 years ago. He has the chance to give the country its first male 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 Kasper Rudd of Norway against No. 27 Karen Khachanov of Russia — Tiafoe would become the first black American in a major final since where Mali V. Washington was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 1996.

“American men’s tennis has been struggling for a couple of decades. We’re fighting a standard that we’ve set for ourselves: Grand Slam champions and Grand Slam finals,” Washington said in a phone interview Thursday. “That hasn’t happened on the men’s side in years.”

A high bar was set by the success of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe — the last African-American in the US Open semifinals, in 1972, and the person for whom the event’s main stage is named — and, before of it, Don Budge and Bill Tilden. Thanks to the Williams sisters and other players who have been major champions or runners-up more recently, such as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Sophia Kenin and Danielle Collins, American women’s tennis has remained relevant long past the days of Chris Evert and by Billie Jean. King.

“It absolutely helps the US Open to have US men’s and women’s champions, for sure,” said tournament director Stacey Alastair. “We’ve had the all-time leading scorer for decades on the women’s side. And obviously we’ve had amazing US champions on the men’s side, from Pete and Andre to Andy. But it’s been a while.”

As Serena Williams prepares to move on from her playing days, current athletes such as Tiafoe, 18-year-old Coco Gauff and others spoke during the US Open about the influence she and her sister Venus had on their careers .

Gauff said she plays 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 it inspires young players – not just black, but white, Hispanic, Asian. Certainly, because of his background and the color of his skin, he will have some impact on young black players and especially young black boys. And I hope it makes them think, “Okay, I’ve been playing tennis for many years. This inspires me to continue.’ Or: “I’ve never played tennis before. That inspires me to try.”

Tiafoe’s enthusiasm on the court – “which you can see more easily in basketball,” Washington said – and personality off the court could help attract young people to tennis.

So could the kinds of social media that didn’t exist in Washington’s playing days.

“I don’t know if you can ever really know 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 watching you at Wimbledon.’ said Washington, whose youth foundation in Jacksonville, Fla., offers after-school and summer programs. “We’re always trying to look for a different group of players, trying to find that next player and maybe the next player in unconventional places.”

Martin Blackman, head of the US Tennis Association’s player development program, believes Tiafoe is “resonating and relevant to the culture. It represents a huge opportunity to make tennis ‘cooler’.”

Tiafoe doesn’t shy away from the idea that he can lead others.

“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 a lot of kids.”

Tiafoe was 6 years old when he first crossed paths with Blackman, who was then a coach at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where little Francis and his twin brother stayed while Dad worked.

“He’d watch the group classes, he’d take the private lessons, he’d hit the wall,” Blackman said.

Blackman sees what Tiafoe is doing as the result of a process he started twelve years ago to try to develop future champions.

Blackman sees a “healthy peer pressure” in the group of American men Tiafoe’s age who have come through the ranks – 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 part of why Frances’ success is so important.”

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More AP coverage of US Open tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/us-open-tennis-championships and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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