NEW YORK—Frances Tiafoe came up short in his quest for a U.S. Open title but he walks out of Flushing Meadows having boosted hope for the future of American men's tennis after reaching the semi-final.
The United States have not produced a men's Grand Slam winner for nearly two decades after Andy Roddick hoisted a trophy at the U.S. Open, a stunning reversal of fortune since the golden years of Sampras and Agassi.
But Tiafoe offered American fans a rare glimmer of hope this year as he delivered one thrilling performance after another, including a fourth-round stunner over Rafa Nadal, to become the first American man to reach a major semi-final since John Isner did at Wimbledon four years ago.
With his country's aspirations heaped on his shoulders—he lost 6–7(6), 6–3, 6–1, 6–7(5), 6–3 to Spanish powerhouse Carlos Alcaraz but was given a hero's ovation inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for his efforts.
"I'm gonna come back and I will win this thing one day," he promised the crowd.
U.S. fans will certainly hope so.
From 25 men in the main U.S. Open singles draw in 1995 to a mere dozen in 2014, the United States' muted impact at the majors has been a source of consternation, even as the women thrived with 23-times Grand Slam winner Serena Williams leading the way.
Surely, the dominance of tennis' "Big Three"—Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal—played a part.
But the dire state of affairs was underscored in 2013 when no American man made it to the third round at Wimbledon for the first time in more than a century.
The U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) set in motion a dramatic expansion of its player development program in 2008, boosting funding by a reported 50% the following year before opening a sprawling new national campus in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.
"It's a long, long process in terms of a federation building a pathway and kind of getting into the business of player development," Martin Blackman, the general manager of USTA player development, told Reuters.
"So 2008, at that point, we're probably 15 years behind the rest of the world...we were late to the game in that respect—and also because of three guys named Federer, Rafa and Djokovic."
American women have had little problem making their mark over the last 25 years, with Serena and Venus Williams delivering a combined 30 slams and Sloane Stephens beating compatriot Madison Keys in the 2017 New York final.
"Extremely gratified that our sport is getting this unbelievable, positive kick in the butt," said Patrick McEnroe, a commentator for ESPN and brother of seven-times Grand Slam winner John McEnroe.
Patrick McEnroe took on the then-new position of general manager of USTA elite player development in 2008. He stayed in the role until 2014.
"You're probably not going to be responsible for the next Serena Williams or the next John McEnroe or Andre Agassi. Those are sort of freaks of nature that just happen no matter what," he told Reuters.
"But I think what you can do and what we did do is put a put a better system in place."
Brad Gilbert, a former coach to Agassi and Roddick, was among those buzzing with excitement for Tiafoe at Flushing Meadows this week, though he said there was more than one player upon which American fans can pin their hopes.
Taylor Fritz made an impact with a quarter-final berth at Wimbledon this year, after winning at Indian Wells earlier in the season.
"This summer, there has been a lot of hope for the American guys," Gilbert told Reuters.
"Obviously it’s been since 2009 that we’ve had an American man in the final of any Slam...But Fritz was right there at Wimbledon so I have to think that they are building from that."