For years, the tennis world has been dreading the departure of the “Big Three”. The golden era is coming to an end; who will ever replace the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic? We will never see their like again. Oh, ye of little faith…
US Open - Semi-finals preview: Carlos and Co. to the rescue
Four contenders are still in the running for their first Grand Slam.
Carlos Alcaraz (n°3) – Frances Tiafoe (n°22)
On Wednesday night and on into Thursday morning, Carlos Alcaraz laid out his credentials as the saviour of the men’s game with his spectacular, five-set, five-hour-15-minute win over Jannik Sinner.
But he was only following on from Frances Tiafoe who had been the immoveable object standing in the way of Andrey Rublev’s irresistible force. A showman when it comes to engaging with the crowd, he stood firm and with muscle, guile and chutzpah forced his way into the semi-finals, the first American man to do so in 16 years. Suddenly the future was looking brighter than ever.
Now Alcaraz and Tiafoe will go toe-to-toe for a place in the final. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the match, Tiafoe has won their only previous match (on clay in the first round in Barcelona last year). He is the older man by five years at 24 but in the rankings, he looks up to his Spanish rival – Tiafoe is No.26 in the world order and Alcaraz is No.4.
Neither man has reached a Grand Slam semi-final, much less a final, before but for Alcaraz, tonight’s match carries extra weight: if he reaches the final and Casper Ruud on the other side draw doesn’t, Alcaraz will become world No.1. And if Alcaraz meets Ruud in the final, the winner will become No.1. No pressure, then.
Yet both Alcaraz and Tiafoe seem to thrive in the pressure cooker of the Arthur Ashe stadium. Tiafoe had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he dismissed Rublev; Alcaraz drew every ounce of strength he could from them to get over the line against Sinner. Both are in their element in the spotlight.
“The energy I receive in this court at 3 a.m., it was unbelievable,” the Spaniard said. “I mean, probably in other tournaments, other places, everybody went to their house to rest. But they keep in the court, supporting me. It was unbelievable.
“Frances, everybody knows the level of Frances. He has beaten Rafa Nadal, Rublev in three sets. He's playing unbelievable right now. High confidence.
He loves the crowd. He loves this court. I'm going to have to put my best.”
As for Tiafoe, he is relishing every second of his run through the Open. The bigger the match – and beating Rafa Nadal in the fourth round had been as big as it got until Wednesday – and the greater the pressure, the more he has loved it.
“I just love playing in front of a packed crowd,” he said. “I feel like that's why you train hard. Show the world what you can do. Don't shy away from it. Go to it.
“Then it makes me feel good when people appreciate how hard you're trying out there and they appreciate good tennis, especially where I came from. To see how many people I can get behind me – that means a lot. I just want to go out there and try to give the crowd what they want, and that's me getting the win.”
Casper Ruud (n°5) – Karen Khachanov (n°27)
Khachanov has had, by far, the tougher route to the semi-finals. His last two matches have gone to the full five sets and he has dropped sets in every round. No matter, he has kept his head and got the job done. Now he is through to the last four at a Grand Slam for the first time in his career. And he is still refusing to get over excited.
“I just did it,” he said simply, having beaten Nick Kyrgios on Tuesday. “I did the step forward. I made my first semi-final, so it's pretty simple in my head. I'm just really happy.”
Whether that feel-good factor will last long against Ruud, the runner-up at Roland Garros this summer and the only semi-finalist in New York who knows what it feels like to reach a major final, remains to be seen.
The Norwegian has had his obstacles to overcome (four sets against Tim Van Rijthoven, five sets against Tommy Paul, four sets against Corentin Moutet) but his expression has never changed. He is eye-wateringly consistent, he is calm under pressure and cool in the heat of battle. And he has beaten Khachanov in their only previous meeting.
Who needs the Big Three when we have semi-final Friday to look forward to?