Frances Tiafoe reacts after losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals...

Frances Tiafoe reacts after losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals of the U.S. Open on Friday, Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

It was a heart-wrenching moment. After giving everything that he had for five sets, four hours and 22 minutes, Frances Tiafoe used his shirt to rub the tears from his eyes and apologized to tennis fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium for losing to 19-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz on Friday night.

“Obviously, I came here wanting to win the U.S. Open,” he told Patrick McEnroe on the court minutes after losing his semifinal match Friday. “I feel I let you guys down. This one hurts…..I’m sorry guys.”

Sorry? Really? Let’s hope when Tiafoe woke up Saturday, he realized what everyone who followed his inspirational journey over these past 12 days already knew: He has no reason to apologize.

When Tiafoe began the U.S. Open by beating fellow  American Marcos Giron in front of a couple thousand fans on Court 17, he was a just a good player likely known to more hardcore tennis fans.

By the end? He had played in front of three straight celebrity-laden crowds in Arthur Ashe Stadium, beaten tennis legend Rafael Nadal in the round of 16 and exchanged an intimate thumbs up with former First Lady Michelle Obama during his first set of Friday’s semifinal.

Tiafoe put his heart on the line in every match he played. He gave fans of American tennis something to cheer for deep into the tournament. He gave even the most casual fans a compelling storyline to follow and a reason to tune in long after Serena Williams has played what was likely her final professional match here.

The first African-American to reach a semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972, Tiafoe served up the most compelling of storylines.

The son of immigrants who escaped war-torn Sierra Leone, Tiafoe learned how to play at an elite tennis center in Maryland where his father was a maintenance worker. The family’s original dream was for their son to get a tennis scholarship because they could not afford to send him to college. Instead, he made it to a level they never even dreamed of when he was a 6-year-old hitting balls against the wall in Maryland.

Heading into the semifinal, he needed to win just two more matches to make history and become the first American man to win a U.S. Open title since Andy Roddick did it 19 years ago. It was a dream that seemed possible. He had knocked off Nadal, after all. Shouldn’t he be able to knock off the man who is often called the mini-Nadal?

Anyone who was worried about what tennis was going to look like after Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic leave the game, only had to tune into Alcaraz’ quarterfinal and semifinal matches. While many were predicting Alcaraz would be spent after playing a five-hour, 15-minute quarterfinal match against Jannik Sinner, there seems to be no limit to the Alcaraz’s stamina, talent and resilience.

Tiafoe showed more than a bit of resilience himself. After winning the first set in a tiebreaker, he looked to be trouble when he dropped the next two. Instead, he kicked into another gear and forced the final set when he won the fourth on a tiebreaker. In the final set, he fended off three match points before Alcaraz was able to put it away.

“He's a hell of a player,” Tiafoe said in his press conference late Friday night. “He's going to be a problem for a very long time.”

Alcaraz is the youngest man to reach a Grand Slam final since Nadal won his first French Open title in 2005. A Grand Slam title won't be the only thing on the line when he faces Casper Ruud Sunday afternoon. The match will also determine the next World No. 1 with both players looking to rise to the top for the first time.

Putting Tiafoe’s tournament in context is a little more difficult.

 He has one ATP victory to his name, at Delray Beach in 2018  At age 24, did he finally turn a corner with this magical run at the U.S. Open? Is he ready to lead a pack of young American talent hoping to break into the upper echelon of the sport? Or is this just a one-time Cinderella story?

Only time will tell. But one thing that is for sure is he has some big plans. Said Tiafoe as he exited the court Friday night: “I will come back, and I will win this thing one day.”

Newsday LogoDON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access