By ADAM ZIELONKA, DYLAN SINN, DANIEL CHAVKIN, LINDSEY FEINGOLD and MOLLIE HIGGINS
This story was reported by Adam Zielonka, Dylan Sinn, Daniel Chavkin, Lindsey Feingold and Mollie Higgins and was written by Adam Zielonka.
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Roger Federer will go down as perhaps the greatest tennis player in history. But during a five-set match in Flushing Meadows on Tuesday night, an unseeded 19-year-old from Maryland put up the kind of challenge Federer rarely faces in the early rounds of a Grand Slam event.
Frances Tiafoe, the 70th-ranked tennis player in the world, won two sets against Federer in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Federer eventually beat Tiafoe, a native of Riverdale, Maryland, in five sets (4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4) but Tiafoe became the fourth player to take Federer to five sets — or defeat him — in the first two rounds of a Grand Slam since his first Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon in 2003, a Capital News Service analysis found.
Federer, 36, won the 2017 Australian Open and Wimbledon, but his close call against Tiafoe came as he has dealt with knee and back injuries that caused him to miss three of the last six Grand Slams. According to ESPN, Federer said after the match he “always knew (he) was going to come in feeling rusty or not great,” but he also credited Tiafoe’s performance.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 30, 2017
In an essay he wrote in The Players’ Tribune this week, Tiafoe said he first faced Federer, a 19-time Grand Slam singles champion, in the 2017 Miami Open and lost to him in straight sets. Nevertheless, Tiafoe’s star has been rising. He had a decorated junior career and trained at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park.
Ray Benton, the tennis center’s CEO since 2008, has known the Tiafoe family for 15 years. Tiafoe’s father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, worked on building the academy and then became their head of maintenance, Benton said.
“For the last five years, I’ve thought that (Frances) would get to be one of the top 10 or 20 players in the world,” Benton said. “But to see him at 19 playing Federer on center court on a Tuesday night match was almost surreal. It was such a big deal.”
— City of College Park (@CollegePark_MD) August 29, 2017
A kid who started playing tennis at center where his dad was maintenance guy has Federer in a 5th in Ashe night match. I love tennis #USOpen
— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) August 30, 2017
Federer’s history of dominance in Grand Slams proves that Tiafoe’s showing was, in fact, a big deal.
From 1999 to 2003, Federer was still gaining his footing as a young phenom in the sport. He was shown the door in the first two rounds of a Grand Slam five times during that span and took five sets to win matches on three occasions.
Once he scored his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003, the Swiss man grew to be one of the sport’s most dominant forces, particularly in the U.S. Open. Federer won 66 straight first- and second-round U.S. Open sets between 2005 and 2015. His first-set loss to Tiafoe was the first time Federer dropped an early-round set since a 2004 second-round match against Marcos Baghdatis from Cyprus (a set Federer lost 7-6).
Since then, early-round upsets and upset scares have been rare for Federer. He needed five sets to defeat Alejandro Falla of Colombia in the first round at Wimbledon in 2010, and again at the 2011 Australian Open against Frenchman Gilles Simon. Federer’s only first- or second-round defeat in a Grand Slam since then came against Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, an unusual year where nine of the top 20 men and women lost in the first three days.
At 19, Tiafoe is far and away the youngest player to push Federer to five sets in an early Grand Slam round since 2003, the CNS analysis found.
The year 2003 in tennis stands out for another reason: It was the last time an American male player won a Grand Slam event. American fans might find hope in Tiafoe after he put up such a fight against Federer. As far as the future of American tennis, Benton says there are many male players on their way up.
“Frances is lucky because he has a group of American players his age who are all coming up, and so they’re all pushing each other,” Benton said, while noting that Tiafoe “may be the preeminent one.”
A rare early-round challenge to an all-time great certainly lends credence to that opinion.
What fight from the Maryland native. Tiafoe leaves with plenty of new fans and won’t be satisfied w simply going the distance w Fed #USOpen
— Kelyn Soong (@KelynSoong) August 30, 2017