“To be honest — it sounds weird — I actually don’t care!” said Tiafoe, giggling on ESPN, while McEnroe stammered in disbelief. “I’m happy — I want to win for me, I don’t want this whole 19-year thing — and then after, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah! I don’t have to hear that anymore!’
“Rafa and these guys were winning slams, I don’t care what your flag was. But there’s an opening now, and I want to do it. I believe I can do it this year.”
Tiafoe played with two mighty emotions fueling him Wednesday in what was either the biggest or second-biggest match of his career after Monday, depending on how you see it. A feeling of freedom and self-belief helped power him to a 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4 win over world No. 11 Andrey Rublev to send him to the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career.
Whether the 24-year-old wants to hear it or not, he is also the first American man to reach a U.S. Open semifinal in 16 years. He’s also the first Black man to reach a U.S. Open semifinal since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
He advances to face either world No. 4 Carlos Alcaraz or No. 13 Jannik Sinner on Friday as a men’s tournament wide open for the taking rolls on. None of the five players left standing here have a Grand Slam trophy. One of them, seventh-ranked Casper Ruud of Norway, has never won a tournament rated above the lowest tier on the ATP three-tiered rating system.
Ruud has a chance to be ranked No. 1 at the U.S. Open’s close.
Why wouldn’t Tiafoe believe he can take it all?
The Hyattsville, Md., native looked light and breezy playing under a closed roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, particularly compared to Rublev. The Russian 24-year-old was trying to get over the quarterfinals hump at a Grand Slam — he’s now been to six without winning.
Yet Rublev posed a major threat on paper. He possesses a powerful forehand and the ability to plop it seemingly anywhere he desires at a given moment. He has big match experience, having logged wins over Roger Federer (in 2019), Nadal (in 2021 on clay) and Novak Djokovic (in 2022).
Tiafoe looked unbothered. Just as he did against Nadal, he remained calm throughout a cracking first set in which rallies were kept short and winners were plentiful. Tiafoe served brilliantly from the start, blasting 18 aces total.
His serve helped him leap to a 4-2 lead in the tiebreaker, at which point swagger took over from calm a bit and Arthur Ashe Stadium drank it in, starting a “Let’s go Frances” cheer to punctuate all the other screams.
Tiafoe kept his celebrations simple and effective — a flex of his muscles here, asking for more crowd noise there. After particularly stunning shots, he held his hand cocked aloft as if seasoning a dish — because he had put a little something extra on that one.
Rublev, meantime, descended into a cocktail of rage and misery. As a top-ranked junior — who also lost to Tiafoe in the quarterfinals of the 2014 boys’ tournament here — the Russian had a penchant for massive temper tantrums on court.
On Wednesday, he banged his racket against his leg after trailing 4-0 in the second-set tiebreaker. He swore at his box. And in the third set, he appeared to bite a tennis ball before burying his face in his towel, red rings around his eyes turning purplish.
Tiafoe was that frustrating. The Marylander bounded across court and up to net, avoiding Rublev’s forehand and playing like he couldn’t be touched.
He won 88 percent of his first serve, saved all four break points he faced and, in capturing two more tiebreakers, extended a 6-0 record in tiebreakers at this year’s U.S. Open.
Tiafoe sealed the match that easily — with an ace. He let out a mighty roar after, unencumbered by the past.