Carlos Alcaraz is one win away from a first Grand Slam title – and world No. 1 ranking – after beating American Frances Tiafoe in a sensational US Open semi-final in five sets on Friday night at New York.
The 19-year-old Spaniard and sensitive highlight reel, whose sublime shot and relentless hustle saw him as the new face of the sport, came from behind and held on from in front in a 6-7 (6 ), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-3 thriller to book a place in Sunday’s final against fifth seed Casper Ruud, who beat Karen Khachanov in the first semi-final of the day.
Facing a home opponent brimming with confidence and the crackling atmosphere of the Arthur Ashe Stadium of nearly 24,000 largely in the American corner, Alcaraz conjured up his best tennis in one pressure moment after another with a composure and nerve beyond his years, ending an American’s deepest run at the US Open since Andy Roddick reached the 2006 final and building on his reputation as the best teenager of men’s tennis since Rafael Nadal nearly two decades ago.
For more than four hours, Alcaraz and Tiafoe exchanged hellfire in grassroots physical rallies and tested their ample movement to the limit in dazzling cat-and-mouse exchanges that covered every inch of the field. But it was Alcaraz, the No. 3 seed whose previous two games in this tournament lasted nearly 10 hours and each ended well after 2 a.m. local time, who delivered the knockout blow. of a champion by winning four of the last five games after holding the match point in the fourth.
It was a devastating end for Tiafoe, the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants who picked up the tennis at the training center where his father was the janitor. The 24-year-old from Hyattsville, Maryland, seeded 22nd, was the first American to reach the last four of his home slam since Roddick and was trying to become the first black American to reach a major final since MaliVai Washington at Wimbledon . in 1996. “Too good from Carlos tonight,” he said afterwards, wiping away tears. “I gave him everything I had tonight and I gave him everything I had for the past two weeks. I came here to win the US Open and I feel like I let fall everybody. It really hurts. I’m gonna come back and win this thing someday.
The first set was played on an even playing field through the opening half hour as the players traded searing groundstrokes at over 100mph, the tension simmering with each successive hold. Tiafoe survived the first test in game seven, holding from the double break point, then again in the following service game, holding 15-30 with a crunching ace and backhand volley.
Then it’s Alcaraz’s turn to squirm, to escape a 4-5, 30-40 stalemate by showing glimpses of the tactical intelligence and sophisticated point construction he’s relied on all along. throughout his breakthrough season. But after saving a set point to hold at 5-6 and then three more in the first set tiebreaker, Alcaraz finally cracked in the fifth with a double fault that gave Tiafoe the opener and ignited the partisan crowd that included Michelle Obama at the edge of the field.
After an exchange of holds to open the second, Alcaraz faced another moment of digestive control on serve at 30, when Tiafoe capped off another hyperkinetic rally with a deft backhand volley winner for the break point. But Alcaraz coolly brushed him off with a cheeky drop shot just inside the baseline and then held on after making the most of an outrageous 17-shot rally where both players looked beaten over once, a streak that left Tiafoe unable to contain his laughter as he slumped in his chair during the changeover.
Alcaraz kept their cool long enough to earn a much-sought break point chance at 2-3, 30-40. Tiafoe saved it with a searing 136mph serve winner, but the Spaniard took his second chance moments later when Tiafoe overcooked a forehand from the baseline. Even with the second set seemingly lost, the American dug in long enough to complicate matters, battling the kind of mental failure against elite players that has done so in recent years.
After splitting the opening two sets, both players emerged from off-court bathroom breaks for a best-of-three match for a place in the final, but Tiafoe’s first prolonged mental disappointment of the night cost him dearly as he was immediately broken in love. to open the third. Alcaraz calmly backed the break with a love hold to extend a 10-game point streak, mixing topspin and sting in the rallies with greater frequency and carrying Tiafoe both mentally and physically with his variety of shots. After breaking twice more to close out the third set in a quick 33 minutes without facing a break point, Alcarez raised his fist to his box as a hush fell over the crowd.
Tiafoe’s spiral continued into the fourth, swept up in a whirlwind of double faults and unforced errors that shattered his composure as he lost nine of 10 games. Alcaraz pounced on his distressed foe, luring him in with drop shots before punishing him with surgical passes. If it was a boxing match, the referee might have come forward to take a long, hard look. And when Tiafoe was smashed in his first service game of the set, the match came within a handshake.
But Tiafoe somehow beat the count. He broke Alcaraz for the first time all night in the next game to get back on duty, fell behind again in the next game, then broke once more to send the crowd into deafening roars. After chasing a match point at 4-5 to recover from the edge of the chasm, the former First Lady sprang from her pitchside seat and pumped her fist as a wall of sound cascaded down from the mezzanine . Before long, Tiafoe had forced a decisive fifth set by winning his eighth tiebreaker in as many chances in the tournament, eclipsing Pete Sampras’ previous US Open record of seven out of seven.
“It was a tough moment for me, losing that game [point] that way, bunting that I could finish with a good forehand that I hit pretty well,” Alcaraz said. “I thought it was a new game in the fifth set. I have to stay there playing, playing well, playing my game and believing.
The crowd was silenced once again when Alcaraz burst to open the fifth. By then they should have known better as the relentless Tiafoe backed down in game four, pumping his fist as he sprinted to his chair. But from there, the American was broken at love in the blink of an eye, double faulting on a triple break point. As the match entered its fifth hour, Alcaraz immediately cemented the break with a love hold, then shoved Tiafoe back with one high percentage shot after another, pressing his opponent’s will and the gallery up to cross the finish line at five minutes to midnight. 4:19.
Already the youngest men’s Grand Slam semi-finalist since Nadal’s breakthrough at Roland Garros in 2005, Alcaraz becomes only the second teenager to reach a men’s US Open final in the professional era after Sampras in 1990. S If he wins Sunday’s final, the prodigy from the small village of El Palmar on the southeast coast of Spain will become the youngest player to reach the top spot in the ATP world rankings. Tiafoe, whose $1.3million earnings for reaching the semi-finals and beating 22-time major champion Nadal offered little comfort in the tears that followed, could only tip her hat .
“He’s one of the best players in the world, for sure,” he said. “He is so young. He hits the ball so hard. I’ve never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly. I saw him get a lot of balls, but I was hitting a few volleys that I was hitting. It gets there. How he is able to extend points, unbelievable.
“He’s a hell of a player. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.