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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At the US Open, Frances Tiafoe picks up where he left off


Tiafoe, who made a sensational run to the semifinal in New York last year where he ran into Carlos Alcaraz, got an easy first-round win over Learner Tien on Monday.

By Matthew Futterman and Gabriela Bhaskar


The last time Frances Tiafoe was playing a match inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in the New York borough of Queens, it was under the lights last year in front of a teeming crowd of 23,000, roaring with every point, as he tried to topple Carlos Alcaraz, the eventual U.S. Open champion and No. 1, in the semifinals.


Former first lady Michelle Obama was sitting in the front row of the President’s Box, urging him on within earshot. There were NBA players in the lower bowl, including Bradley Beal, then a star of Tiafoe’s beloved Washington Wizards, as well as a slew of Tiafoe’s friends and relatives lucky enough to land tickets for the biggest match an American man had played at the U.S. Open in years.


On Monday, Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who has catapulted himself into a different level of sports celebrity, experienced something a little different in Ashe Stadium than what transpired a year ago. Opening day at the U.S. Open is an opportunity for tennis fans, even those with a ticket for Ashe, to wander the grounds in search of the up-and-comers, or to take in a tight four-hour match between middling pros at close range.


The result can be a lifeless, half-empty atmosphere in the biggest stadium in the sport, especially for a mostly one-sided win such as Tiafoe’s 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 drubbing of Learner Tien, a 17-year-old Californian likely to have better days at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the future. From Tiafoe’s perspective, that was good. The only thing that would have boosted the buzz would have been a match far tighter than Tiafoe, the tournament’s 10th seed and one its most popular players, would have wanted.


And yet, although there may not have been too much buzz in the big stadium, there was plenty pulsing through Tiafoe, who knows this U.S. Open is far different from any he has played before.


“A bunch of new experiences today,” Tiafoe, a favorite for the first time on Ashe, said in his news conference after the match.


That dynamic has consequences, both literal and figurative, good and potentially complicating, since they are loaded with reminders of Tiafoe’s new status.


It was the first time his team got to sit in the player’s box belonging to the favorite, on the west side of the court, forcing Tiafoe to pivot his head in a different direction for support. As the favorite, he got introduced to the crowd and entered the court after Tien. That meant he sat in the chair on the left side of the chair umpire rather than on the right side, farther from the entrance, where the underdog traditionally walks to.


Everywhere he looked, there was a reminder of who he is now, just as it has been all week as he moved between sponsor events — he has a shiny new Cadillac Escalade in his driveway — and other appearances. And then the tennis began.


“I’ve never played a match before where I was supposed to win on Ashe,” he said.


How Tiafoe handles all this will go a long way toward determining how many wins he can manage at the tournament every American man desperately wants to win. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the last time it occurred, when Andy Roddick grabbed his lone Grand Slam singles title before the rise of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.


The expectations are high.


“They should be,” said Martin Blackman, general manager for player development at the U.S. Tennis Association, who has known Tiafoe since his elementary school days.


“It’s a lot,” said Ray Benton, CEO of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where Tiafoe’s unlikely rise to tennis stardom began. Tiafoe’s father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was a maintenance man in the early years of JTCC, where tennis pros first noticed how proficient his young son was at hitting a tennis ball against a wall.


Benton was at Tiafoe’s match Monday and has been in contact with him over the summer.


“He’s a little ...,” Benton paused and, with his arms, imitated someone who was experiencing the inevitable weight of expectations, the biggest of which are those Tiafoe has set for himself. “In some ways, all he can do is disappoint.”


As well as the season has gone for Tiafoe, including wins in tournaments in Houston and Stuttgart, Germany, he has fallen short of his own goals at the most important events. He has lost in the third round at the year’s first three Grand Slam tournaments.


He was downright despondent after he played arguably his worst match of the year in a three-set loss to Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria at Wimbledon on grass, a surface he loves and that would figure to suit his aggressive and creative game.


At heart, Tiafoe, who burst onto the scene in 2019 when he made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and quickly broke into the Top 30, is a showman, an entertainer who loves to play off the energy of the crowd. One of the challenges from his earliest years has been figuring out how to do that most effectively.


A typical Tiafoe sequence occurred Monday during a tight second set against Tien. With the score knotted at 4-4, Tien rose and twisted and snapped a backhand overhead that looked like a certain winner. Tiafoe chased it down and threaded the needle with his shot, zipping it between the umpire’s chair and the net post to set him up for what seemed like a crucial break of Tien’s serve. Then he did his trademark frozen stare into the crowd, his cue for the fans to get loud. They did.


But then he lost his own serve with a series of careless errors — a forehand into the net and an overhead wide — allowing Tien a chance to draw even in the set once more. Megan Moulton-Levy, a former pro who is general manager of player development at JTCC and has been a mentor to Tiafoe for years, spoke this summer of her long talks with Tiafoe about cracking the code of entertaining and using the energy of his ever growing fan base without burning too much energy or losing his focus.


“He’s such a social guy,” Moulton-Levy said in an interview this month. “He has this big beautiful personality, so what he has to do is manage how to turn it on and off through the course of a match. He has to figure out when and how to let it show.”


Tiafoe spoke of his search for balance Monday after his win over Tien; of choosing when to fire up a crowd that will undoubtedly be in his corner during this tournament and that is coming to Queens specifically to see him; and of when to focus on the taxing task of winning best-of-five-set matches.


“I don’t want to gas out in the first set,” he said, noting that it would be important especially as the tournament wore on, and the hype and excitement and the interest of all those A-list names and countless others among the Tiafoe faithful took note of another, he hoped, deep run.


“I have to keep winning so they stay interested,” he said.

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