Carlos Alcaraz is one win away from a maiden grand slam title – and the world No 1 ranking – after outlasting Frances Tiafoe of the United States in a sensational five-set US Open semi-final on Friday night in New York.
The 19-year-old Spaniard, whose sublime shotmaking and dogged hustle have seen him tabbed as the new face of the sport, came from behind and held on from ahead in a 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 thriller to book a place in Sunday’s final opposite fifth-seeded Casper Ruud, who battled past Karen Khachanov in the day’s first semi-final.
Casper Ruud jumps for joy after winning a point against Karen Khachanov in the US Open semi-final.
Casper Ruud books place in US Open final by battling past Karen Khachanov
Up against a opponent brimming with confidence and the crackling Arthur Ashe Stadium atmosphere of nearly 24,000 spectators largely in the American’s corner, Alcaraz conjured his best tennis in one pressure moment after another with a poise and nerve beyond his years, ending the deepest run by an American man at the US Open since Andy Roddick reached the 2006 final and further building on his reputation as the best teenager in men’s tennis since Rafael Nadal nearly two decades ago.
For more than four hours Alcaraz and Tiafoe traded hellfire in physical baseline rallies and tested their ample movement to the limit in dazzling cat-and-mouse exchanges that covered every inch of the court. But it was Alcaraz, the No 3 seed whose previous two matches in this tournament spanned nearly 10 hours, who delivered the finishing kick of a champion by winning four of the last five games after holding match point in the fourth.
It was a devastating finish for Tiafoe, the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants who picked up tennis at the training center where his dad was the janitor. The 24-year-old from Hyattsville, Maryland, seeded 22nd, was the first American man to reach the last four at his home slam since Roddick and was bidding to become the first Black American man to reach a major final since MaliVai Washington at Wimbledon in 1996. “Too good from Carlos tonight,” he said afterward, wiping away tears. “I gave it everything I have tonight and I gave it everything I had for the last two weeks. I came here to win the US Open and I feel I let everybody down. It really hurts. I’m going to come back and I will win this thing one day.”
The first set unfolded on even terms for the opening half hour as the players traded searing groundstrokes clocking upwards of 100mph, the smoldering tension building with each successive hold. Tiafoe survived the first test in the seventh game, holding from double break-point down, then again in the next service game, holding from 15-30 with a crunching ace and a backhand volley.
Then it was Alcaraz’s turn to wriggle, only to escape from a 4-5, 30-40 bind by showing a glimpse of the tactical intelligence and sophisticated point construction he’s relied on throughout his breakthrough season. But after saving a set point to hold at 5-6, then three more in the first-set tiebreaker, Alcaraz finally cracked on the fifth with a double fault that handed Tiafoe the opener and ignited the partisan crowd that included Michelle Obama at courtside.
After a trade of holds to open the second, Alcaraz faced another gut-check moment serving at 30-all, when Tiafoe capped another hyperkinetic rally with a deft backhand volley winner for break point. But Alcaraz coolly brushed it aside with a cheeky drop shot from just inside the baseline, then went on to hold after getting the best of an outrageous 17-stroke rally where both players looked beaten more than once, a sequence that left Tiafoe unable to contain his laughter as he slumped into his chair on the changeover.
Alcaraz held his nerve long enough to earn a long-sought break-point chance at 2-3, 30-40. Tiafoe saved it with a blistering 136mph service winner, but the Spaniard seized on his second chance moments later when Tiafoe overcooked a forehand from the baseline. Even with the second set appearing lost, the American dug in long enough to make things complicated, fighting off the sort of mental lapse against elite players that has done him in in recent years.
Having split the opening two sets, both players emerged from off-court bathroom breaks to a best-of-three match for a place in the final, but Tiafoe’s first extended mental letdown of the night cost him dearly as he was immediately broken at love to open the third. Alcaraz calmly backed up the break with a love hold to extend a streak of 10 straight points, mixing topspin and spice within the rallies with greater frequency and wearing Tiafoe down both mentally and physically with his variety of shotmaking. After breaking twice more to close out the third set in a brisk 33 minutes without facing a break point, Alcarez pumped his fist toward his box as a hush fell over the crowd.
Tiafoe’s spiral continued into the fourth, dragged down in an eddy of double faults and unforced errors that left his composure shattered as he lost nine of 10 games. Alcaraz pounced on his flagging foe, drawing him in with drop shots before punishing him with surgical passes. Were it a boxing match, the referee might have stepped forward to take a long, hard look at things. And when Tiafoe was broken in his opening service game of the set, the match appeared all but a handshake away.
But Tiafoe somehow beat the count. He broke Alcaraz for the first time all night in the following game to get back on serve, fell behind a break again in the very next game, then broke once more to send the crowd into deafening roars. After chasing down a match point at 4-5 to claw back from the brink, the former First Lady sprung from her courtside seat and pumped her fist as a wall of sound cascaded down from the mezzanine. Before long, Tiafoe had forced a fifth and deciding set by winning his eighth tiebreaker from as many chances in the tournament, eclipsing Pete Sampras’s previous US Open record of seven from seven.
“It was a tough moment for me, losing that match [point] in that way, doing a drop shot that I could finish with a good forehand that I hitting pretty well,” Alcaraz said. “I thought it is a new match in the fifth set. I have to stay there playing, playing well, playing my game, and believe.”
The crowd was silenced once again when Alcaraz broke to open the fifth. By then, they should have known better as the relentless Tiafoe broke back in the fourth game, 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 triple break point. As the match entered its fifth hour, Alcaraz consolidated the break immediately with a love hold, then ground Tiafoe away with one high-percentage shot after another, squeezing the will from his opponent and the gallery until crossing the finish line at five to midnight after 4hr 19min.
Already the youngest men’s grand slam semi-finalist since Nadal’s breakthrough run through the 2005 French Open, Alcaraz becomes only the second teenager to reach a US Open men’s final in the professional era after Sampras in 1990. Should he prevail in Sunday’s final, the prodigy from the small village of El Palmar on Spain’s southeastern coast will become the youngest ever player to reach No 1 in the ATP’s world rankings. Tiafoe, whose $1.3m winnings for reaching the semi-finals and beating 22-time major champion Nadal along the way offered little solace in the teary aftermath, could only tip his hat.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, for sure,” he said. “He’s so young. He hits the ball so hard. I never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly. I’ve seen him get a lot of balls, but I was hitting some drop volleys that I’ve been hitting. He’s getting there. How he’s able to extend points, incredible.
“He’s a hell of a player. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.”