Carlos Alcaraz pushed all the way in thrilling five-set win over Frances Tiafoe

To be fair, Frances Tiafoe had warned Carlos Alcaraz that he was coming for him. And he nearly had him. ­Having taken the opening set from the defending champion, ­Tiafoe, seeded 29, pushed him all the way in a spectacular five-setter that ­threatened to dump the Spaniard out of the tournament.

The last match these two played, the 2022 US Open semi-final, was an epic. Here was a rare sequel that lived up to the original. ­“Obviously it’s always a challenge playing against Tiafoe,” said Alcaraz. “He’s a ­brilliant talented player … it was really ­difficult for me to adapt my game [and] find solutions.”

At one stage the American was within six points of an utterly ­unexpected victory. Four-all in the fourth set, Alcaraz was circling the drain, 0-30 down on his own serve. The crowd cheered ­encouragement as if he, not Tiafoe, were the underdog.

The moment galvanised the French Open champion, who clawed his way back to win the game and force a tie-break that elicited some of the most sublime tennis in a match that had already had its fill. “I was thinking, fight one more ball,” he said. “I always tell myself I have to go for it. If I lose, I lose.”

“Big Foe” v “Little Carlos” sounded like a title fight. There was even some good-natured trash talk in the ­build-up, Tiafoe declaring himself “ready to go to war” on his good friend. Some dismissed the hype. While their firework-filled five-setter at Flushing Meadows rocketed Alcaraz towards the first of his three grand slams, Tiafoe’s career has had a different trajectory.

That semi still represents the ­furthest the American has got in slams. Since last summer he has dropped from being a top-10 player to his current ranking of 29. He split from his coach, Wayne Ferreira, who now works with Britain’s Jack Draper – the same Draper who ended Tiafoe’s Stuttgart title defence in the quarter-finals last month. Tiafoe has said he got “too comfortable”. Perhaps the showman was simply waiting for a grand enough stage.

Frances Tiafoe acknowledges the crowd after his epic five-set defeat to Carlos Alcaraz. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

In warm, clammy conditions beneath the Centre Court roof, it didn’t take long for this match to heat up. A 22-stroke rally brought hums of appreciation, and when Alcaraz secured the first break, Tiafoe broke straight back. At four-all, Alcaraz saved three consecutive break points with his titanic serve and followed up with two more to seal the game.

The third seed carved drops and lobs. Tiafoe weaved and blocked at the net. While Tiafoe’s aggression was sometimes overcooked – he delivered one smash into his own side of the court – it served him well. If Alcaraz was playing all the angles, Tiafoe was covering them, and the crowd was loving it. Tiafoe saw that, and asked them for more.

Alcaraz had promised it would be a “really fun match to watch and to play” and he wasn’t wrong. A ­joyful spirit hung in the air. There was ­comedy when both men challenged calls in the same game: while Tiafoe’s was wrong by a whisker, Alcaraz’s was wrong by a mile, and his rival helpfully pointed it out with a ­suitably wide hand gesture.

Tiafoe seemed to genuinely enjoy some of Alcaraz’s moments of ­brilliance, grinning back at his friend after one of his cross-court winners. There was even a tender moment after Tiafoe had slipped chasing down at the net and lay ­spreadeagled on his back. Alcaraz peered over the net before walking around it, giving him his hand, and helping him back up.

Still, Tiafoe wasn’t rolling over, even for a friend. After Alcaraz took the second set 6-2, Tiafoe showed the same resistance he has already demonstrated in this tournament, coming back from two sets down in his first-round match against ­Matteo Arnaldi. He drew Alcaraz into a cat-and-mouse game around the court until the pressure finally told. At three-all, 15-all, Alcaraz sent an easy volley back past the baseline, and soon after Tiafoe had the break, ­serving out to go two sets to one up.

“Frances, today’s your day!” shouted someone in the crowd. After the false jeopardy of ­Alcaraz’s second-round match against ­Aleksandar Vukic, this was the real deal. Vukic described his opponent as a smiling hitman, but there were moments in this game when Alcaraz’s deadly focus deserted him. Twice he attempted to retrieve a ball from the back of the court between his legs, twice he failed. Another wild mis-hit went into the crowd.

It was only when Alcaraz was ­staring down the barrel of defeat that he finally locked into his most ­brilliant streak. He was asked what the tension must have done to his support team. “They suffer more than me,” he laughed. “But without them it’s impossible to win.”

Tiafoe, meanwhile, has reminded his fans and himself just what how much he is capable of. Not bad for someone used to “losing to clowns”.

The Guardian

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