Roger Federer survived a five-set thriller against gutsy 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 in the first round of the U.S. Open late Tuesday night.
“More than a test, it was a good one, we both enjoyed ourselves out here,” Federer said courtside after the match, which ended just before midnight. “I’m very happy for the match. It was exciting. Frances fought well. When things connect for him, he is a very good player and is going to have a bright future.”
Third-ranked Federer improved to 32-1 in U.S. Open night matches with the win.
Tiafoe, who was born the year Federer turned pro (1998), is ranked No. 70 and was no stranger to the 19-time Grand Slam champion. They practiced together at the French Open and U.S. Open last year, and they played each other in the second round of the Miami Open earlier this year. Federer won that match 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, and was impressed with Tiafoe’s power and go-for-broke style.
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“Back then (when they practiced) he surprised me, but I’m not going to get surprised (again) because I saw the power he had, the explosiveness he had, how easily he can generate pace,” Federer said after the Miami win. “I think he’s going to be really good. … I think the question was always how was he going to come out. Seemed like he was fearless, no problem, good serving, taking the ball early, making the plays.
“That I like to see, when a younger player comes out that he really feels he has nothing to lose. I hope he’s going to learn a lot from a match like this … playing on center court with a lot of people, under pressure, saving break points, making break points, playing breakers. That’s what it’s about, and it should feed a player like him with a lot of energy moving forward.”
Tiafoe has had an improbable tennis journey, which was recounted in a Herald story earlier this year.
His father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was the custodian at a posh tennis country club in College Park, Md., and took Frances with him to work regularly. Frances napped on the massage tables while his father swept and cleaned, and he eventually picked up a racket.
At 15, he was the youngest boys champion in Orange Bowl history. At 17, he earned a wild card to the French Open, the youngest American to do so since Michael Chang in 1989. Friday night, he wound up on the U.S. Open center court against one of the game’s legends, and proved he is certainly a player to watch for in the future.