Michelle Obama was cheering him on from the first row of the President’s Box. Many of Tiafoe’s loved ones and friends were in attendance, as were many National Basketball Association players (including Bradley Beal, then a rising star with Tiafoe’s beloved Washington Wizards).
Ashe Stadium on Monday was a bit different from a year ago for Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who has rocketed himself to a new level of sports notoriety. Even if you have a ticket to the Ashe final, you may spend the first day of the U.S. Open exploring the grounds in search of up-and-coming players or watching a close four-hour battle between mediocre professionals up close.
A 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 victory for Tiafoe against Learner Tien, a 17-year-old Californian who will undoubtedly see better days at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in the future, is an example of how this can leave the largest arena in the sport seeming lifeless and half empty. As far as Tiafoe is concerned, that’s a win. Only a far closer match than Tiafoe, the tournament’s 10th seed and one of its most popular players, would have desired would have increased the excitement.
Tiafoe, who understands this U.S. Open is unlike any he has played before, felt the excitement anyway, even if there wasn’t much of it in the vast stadium.
That dynamic has real-world repercussions, both positive and negative, that are laden with reminders of Tiafoe’s elevated position.
For the first time ever, Tiafoe and his teammates were seated in the player’s box of the home team’s opponent, on the west side of the court. The audience cheered as he was presented to them and he followed Tien onto the court as the clear favourite. As a result, rather of taking the underdog’s customary seat on the right side of the chair umpire, closer to the exit, he took up residence on the left.
His newfound celebrity status was constantly reinforced during the week as he made appearances and drove his brand new Cadillac Escalade to sponsor events. Tennis play then got underway.
Tiafoe’s composure under pressure will go a long way towards deciding how many matches he can win at the tournament every guy in the United States hopes to win. Until the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic came along, the last time this happened was 20 years ago this year, when Andy Roddick won his lone Grand Slam singles championship.
Tiafoe has had a successful season so far, with victories in tournaments in Houston and Stuttgart, Germany; nonetheless, he has failed to meet his own expectations at the most crucial competitions. So far this year, he has been eliminated from all three Grand Slam competitions in the third round.
After losing in three sets against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov on grass at Wimbledon—a surface he adores and which should have suited his aggressive and imaginative game—he was utterly dejected.
Tiafoe, who shot to fame this year by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and swiftly climbing into the top 30, is, at heart, a showman, an entertainer who thrives on feeding off the enthusiasm of the audience. Finding the best way to achieve that has been a struggle for him from a young age.
During Monday’s close second set against Tien, Tiafoe produced a classic sequence. Tien, serving with the match tied at 4, rose, turned, and snapped a backhand overhead that appeared unbeatable. In a seemingly vital break of Tien’s serve, Tiafoe hunted it down and threaded the needle with his shot, sending it whizzing between the umpire’s chair and the net post. Then he gave the audience its usual frozen gaze, which always gets them roaring. Sure enough, they did.
Careless blunders on his own serve, including a forehand into the net and an overhead wide, allowed Tien to get back into the set. Former pro and current general manager of player development at J.T.C.C. and longtime Tiafoe mentor Megan Moulton-Levy spoke earlier this summer about their in-depth conversations about how to best entertain and channel the enthusiasm of his growing fan base without tiring himself out or getting distracted.
On Monday, following his victory against Tien, Tiafoe spoke about his struggle to find equilibrium between the demands of focusing on winning best-of-five set matches and energising a crowd that will certainly be on his side throughout this tournament and that is coming to Queens particularly to watch him.