It seemed a bit early for 19-year-old Floridian Frances Tiafoe to shock the tennis world, and far too soon for 19-time major-tournament champion Roger Federer to exit the U.S. Open.
But last night, in the first set and again in the fourth, the real possibility of a shocking first-round Tiafoe upset reared its head before the third-seeded Federer at last prevailed, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.
Unbeaten in his two previous 2017 Grand Slam events, Federer wrestled with an iffy serve throughout the first set and appeared distracted by the unsettling noise under the closed Arthur Ashe Stadium roof, unable to get his teeth into the match.
Tiafoe converted a service break in the first game of the match and hurried through the first of five quick sets—the fifth was longest at 37 minutes—an apparent fickle finger of fate shaken at the third-seeded Federer. And again, after Federer apparently was on the way to restoring order, Tiafoe regrouped. A grease spot one minute, flattened by Federer’s steamrolling, Tiafoe popped up to take the fourth set with ease.
When Federer converted a break point with Tiafoe serving at 1-2, 30-40 in the fifth set—on a charging Federer backhand pass—the five-time U.S. champ seemed at last to attain real security. Not so. He needed a final service break on Tiafoe’s netted forehand on match point.
Tiafoe’s world ranking is a fairly humble No. 70—he had been a career high of 60 in July—and Federer, in 35 previous major-tournament matches against American players, had lost only once.
That was to multiple major-tournament champion Andre Agassi. Federer arrived at Flushing Meadow with a 321-51 match record in Grand Slam events, compared to Tiafoe’s 2-6.
Not that Tiafoe hadn’t raised a few eyebrows before at the Open. Last year, he took a two-sets-to-love lead against top American John Isner in the first round, only to lose a fifth-set tiebreaker. Tiafoe also appeared in the Open’s main draw in 2015, also losing in the first round.
The Maryland son of Sierra Leone parents, Tiafoe took up the sport when he was 4 years old at College Park junior tennis center, where his father worked on the construction crew and later as custodian. He won the national 18-and-under title last year and certainly impressed Isner, who told him after last year’s match, “You’re going to be great. Don’t let this get you down.”
Isner’s evaluation was that Tiafoe’s “got wheels. He’s got the hands. He’s got the shots on both sides….I certainly would buy stock in him.”
In his only previous match against Federer, earlier this year in Miami, Tiafoe had pushed Federer to a first-set tiebreaker before losing in straight sets. But as last night wore on, Tiafoe went from a caffeinated, aggressive presence in the first set to a nervous, gradually outclassed opponent, while the 36-year-old Federer fell into his usual cool and collected routine.
But only temporarily, until Federer at last re-re-grouped.
Not a minute too soon, either.